Sunday, October 04, 2009

"Because We Just Don't Have Five Planets"

Last week I participated in the production of a documentary about biochar, to discuss the potentials for this material to be used as carbon storage and soil improvement.

The documentary is the brain child of Patricia Bader-Johnson, active in Tokyo in a number of environmental projects, as well as chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce CSR Committee.

We did the interview in the lovely Edo era temple gardens at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chinzan-so Garden.

Great location for talking about sustainability!

My focus is on food safety and food security, and I pointed out that biochar needs to be produced in a way that is not adding toxic substances or heavy metals into the food supply chain, say, if wood is used that has been treated with chemicals. Yet, the potential for using biochar in food production seems very promising. I particularly like how it allows farmer to take control over the soil fertility issue, rather than depending on fertilizer companies and fossile fuel for adding important nutritients to the soil. From a food security perspective, it can be an important way to improve small scale farming, as well as self-sufficient, subsistence farming that we urgently need to solve hunger problems.

Before my interview, Patricia and the film crew talked to professor Katsu Minami, a Japanese expert on climate change who 20 years ago was part of the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

An Historical Overview of the GAIA Hypothesis and the IPCC Reports, and Global Warming in Japan, by Katsu Minami:

Why do our thoughts not extend to the extraordinary crises that humanity and civilization now face? Heating due to global warming is bringing about phenomena which are extremely harmful to ecosystems, and has already exceeded the level at which warming could be controlled, yet why can’t people understand that?

What can we do right now? Return carbon and nitrogen to the soil. Devote ourselves body and soul to buying green products. Decrease our desire for material things. Reduce consumption of resources and energy. Reduce pollution and waste across the board in production, distribution, and consumption. Turn our attention not only to CO2, but also to CH4 and N2O. Though we might criticize politicians, the media, and the national structure and system, we need the self-awareness that we ourselves cause global warming. Transition to and lead the way to a negative-growth economy. Cultivate thinking in which the economy is a subset of the environment, and immediately discard thinking in which the environment is a subset of the economy.

There are many examples of how biochar can be used in agriculture. In Montreal, Canada, farmers use biochar as a way to improve soil fertility by grinding the charcoal and incorporating it into farm soil. The key is the way biochar is made, through pyrolysis, which locks carbon into the charcoal, taking it out of the atmosphere. Biochar can also be used with EM (Effective Microorganisms) as in this project in Costa Rica. The Japan Biochar Association was established earlier in 2009, and according to professor Makoto Ogawa, president of JBA, biochar was first mentioned in 1697, using rice husk charcoal:

The oldest description on charcoal use in agriculture is found in a text book, “Nogyo Zensho (Encyclopedia of Agriculture)” written by Yasusada Miyazaki in 1697. He described in it; “After roasting every wastes, the dense excretions should be mixed with it and stocked for a while. This manure is efficient for the yields of any crops. It is called the ash manure”. Probably similar knowledge had been popular in China and Korea since ancient time.

In Asian countries, rice husk charcoal which can be carbonized by simple methods in field soon after harvesting has been one of the most common materials for soil amendment. It seems that rice husk charcoal has been used for several thousand years since the beginning of rice cultivation in Asia, because rice husk with high content of silica is decomposed a little in soil and useless as a compost material.

Patricia plans to have the documentary ready by December, and will show it at the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

Photo of carbonated rice husk from the Philippines


Pandabonium said...

With our nuclear powered space ships we will conquer four more planets. Then we WILL have five planets and can continue ruining this one apace.

Believe it or not, some people actually think like that.

Great post. I want to learn how to do bio char.

Martin J Frid said...

Well, as they say, "it's not rocket science" and I like it that way. Things we can do in our own backyard to make soils more fertile will be very helpful as we run out of food.