And can the alternative fertiliser technology make a comeback on the investor agenda?
Seven years ago at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, biochar was the latest word on the future of carbon-friendly agriculture.
The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) actively promoted developing the carbon-rich material, and oil giant Shell was financing biochar research at American, British and Italian universities.
Biochar, which looks slate-grey and has a flaky feel to it, was billed as a miracle farming product that could see us putting carbon, which would otherwise enter the atmosphere, back into the earth, fertilising it at the same time. Then, the excited chatter abruptly died away.
I’ve been talking to scientists and investors, asking why biochar has fallen out of fashion and whether it could stage a comeback. And it turns out I’m not the only one asking.
Biochar is made by burning off biomass like plant material in a zero-oxygen environment. If carried out properly, the burning process does release CO2 into the atmosphere, but with minimal other atmospheric pollutants. Much of the carbon that otherwise would be lost through natural decomposition is also captured in the end product.
There are biochar producers out there – Austrian company Sonnerde sells a compost and biochar mix to gardeners, not farmers. Vega Biofuels in the US is offering a biochar product to cannabis growers, and last year announced a private placement memorandum to raise $1 million for the company to keep up with demand.
The reason biochar isn’t marketed to farmers, according to the scientists I spoke to, is that production methods still need more research to make them economically viable for large-scale agricultural producers to buy and use it.
Patrick Lee, a project executive for development consultants Landell Mills, is running a project in Nepal financed by the Nordic Development Fund. There, biochar is made using simpler field ovens made from mud, using biomass from sources like weeds and forest that is encroaching onto established agricultural land.
In a trial with 19 farmers growing tomatoes, Landell Mills says that in fields using biochar and cow urine, average yield increased by 19 percent compared with those only using cow urine. Scientists observed the biochar-enriched tomato fields “provided harvest for a more extended time and that pest infection is lower”.
“There are two problems with biochar right now, which stop it being commercially attractive to a lot of companies,” Simon Shackley from the British Biochar Foundation told me. “The first is that we still have to prove how long biochar will keep carbon in the earth. That could be a case of having to show that it will stay in the earth at least a thousand years. It needs a rigorous methodology and scientists have been struggling to agree.” Proving that biochar can capture carbon in the earth for a significantly long time could qualify its users for subsidies and carbon credits in the future.
The other problem, he said, is the cost: “We haven’t got a cost-effective process that can be used on an industrial scale. We are proving that biochar can really help soil quality in many parts of the world, especially temperate wet climates like you often find in Latin America or Asia.”
Shackley’s explanation as to why enthusiasm for biochar has ebbed since 2008? “After the global financial crisis, private sector money going into researching biochar dwindled as companies cut back on research funds. By the time funding for long-term research was increasing, biochar was off their radars.”
Today, however, with the post-crisis funding having been put to good use, the story of biochar is set to continue. Commercial scalability still looks some way off, but investors in agri-related technology will do well to keep an eye on it. As the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned in a report this week, the world’s soil is in an alarming state, and there is an urgent need for new ways of improving it. The FAO doesn’t mention biochar, but its boosters are clear that it has the potential to be a meaningful part of the solution.
It might be seven years late, but biochar could yet set the world alight.
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