Whether or not you buy into the science of global warming, the fact remains that there is an ever growing problem of carbon depletion in global soil. Most of this stems from centuries of farming on fertile soil, farming whose practices have begun to turn soil into nothing more than dirt devoid of nutrients. Not only does this reduce the fertility of farmlands, but it contributes to a rise of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. One study by Ohio State University reckons that between 50 and 70 percent of soils have lost their carbon stock which has since been oxidized and transformed into carbon dioxide.
Without a rich supply of carbon within the soil, the fundamental relationship between plant life and the soil from which it grows is hindered greatly. This leads to a reduction in the ability to produce viable food sources in an increasing world population. While it must be pointed out that North American farmlands remain fairly fertile, the same cannot be said of emerging nations, China in particular. China by far is the leading importer of rice, wheat and corn due to its contaminated soil, a contamination brought about through industrial waste and excessive fertilizing.
Let it not be said that this process cannot be reversed. There are a few ways in which carbon can be returned to the soil and reduce the billions of tons of carbon leached into the atmosphere while also bolstering the soil against drought and flood. One such way is the introduction of soil microbes that are vital to jump starting the soil cycle, a cycle that has been interrupted by the long term use of herbicides, insecticides and non-organic fertilizers. Without these microbes the soil is far less useful.
The second, and perhaps the most interesting, option is the emergence of biochar use. It’s a renewable energy in some respects in that it is born of plant matter, manure and organic material heated in an oxygen-depleted environment. The result is a solid form of carbon in the shape of sticks, pellets and dust that can be put back into the soil, where the biochar absorbs pollutants and boosts soil fertility. Stored safely in the soil, experts have calculated that nearly 29 billion tons of carbon dioxide would be withheld from the atmosphere. Not only would it reduce carbon oxidation, but biochar would provide an outlet for the abundance of manure produced by the world’s livestock.
It’s an interesting solution to a growing problem, but the issue remains high cost. There is little worldwide government support and production is low due to the niche market of biochar use. However, one expert has argued that the market for biochar production could skyrocket if it is used for the likes of toner cartridges and lead pencils. An expansion of the viability of biochar would surely reduce the price and help to restore carbon lost from robust farming. Perhaps we would then breathe a bit easier.