Charcoal, referred to as ‘biochar’ when applied in agricultural soils, has been shown to store and stabilize carbon, retain nutrients and water, increase biological activity, and increase a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. New research on biochar’s influence on carbon stabilization and increased biological activity in soils presents an opportunity for charcoal to become a foundational element of regenerative agriculture. Utilization of biochar could be an important strategy for rebuilding fertility in degraded crop lands, farms and gardens, helping farmers and gardeners develop resilient crops in a changing climate. Further, biochar holds the potential to integrate sustainable agriculture with sustainable forestry, helping turn the excess biomass of overstocked forests, excess feedstock and many other bio recyclables into a long-term asset for food security.
For the people of the Amazon Basin they produced and used char to enhance low quality soils to sustain agriculture. The 2,500 year-old practice converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security, and increase soil biodiversity, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water. Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management practices. Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earths in the Amazon terra preta (“dark earth”), has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil enhancer. Biochar can be an important tool to increase food security and cropland diversity in areas with severely depleted soils, scarce organic resources, and inadequate water and chemical fertilizer supplies. Biochar also improves water quality and quantity by increasing soil retention of nutrients and agrochemicals for plant and crop utilization.
Modern day scientists and land managers are evaluating the potential for biochar as a soil amendment to reclaim and remediate disturbed or contaminated soils, enhance agricultural productivity, and possibly mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and reduction of emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a powerful greenhouse gas. Production of biochar may also address problems with over-stocked or beetle-killed forests and organic waste management. Further, biochar is often a co-product of biofuel production, improving both the greenhouse gas balance and economic viability of biomass-based renewable fuels.