The never-ending lure of biochar rabbit holes:

How biochar can enhance food security and safety

One of the charms of biochar is also a bit of a curse: its sheer versatility provides endless opportunities for diving down all manner of rabbit holes. After more than a dozen years in the biochar industry, it seems as if biochar has taken over a large part of my brain. I am not sure if it has helped or hindered my divergent thinking, but no matter what I read, see or hear, I end up more often than not, pondering if or how biochar could be utilized. I think this affliction needs a name and I think it should be ‘Biochar on the Brain” or BOTB. I wonder how many other sufferers there are.

Whether it is a blessing or a curse has yet to be determined but one thing is certain, the endless biochar rabbit holes I have been down over the last dozen years have opened my mind to new ways of thinking about biochar and opened doors to new industries in which biochar could play a role.

The most recent random rabbit hole took over my brain while reading ‘Eating to Extinction’ by Dan Saladino (a great read btw!). He describes the many threats to diversity in the plants and animals consumed by humans including a fungus called Fusarium Graminarium which leads to fusarium head blight (FHB) in grains and grasses. No sooner had I read about what it is and the enormous impact it has had on farmers, flora & fauna, than BOTB kicked in: is anyone researching this? The answer: of course they are!

How can biochar help minimize damage from this formidable fungi and its moldy mates? Biochar research points to at least three ways:

  • Once FHB is found in soils, it is nearly impossible to irradicate. It will lurk below the surface waiting for the right conditions (usually warm and wet weather) to be reborn.  However, there are some recommended mitigation measures, one of which is to burn or bury severely stricken crops. Instead of burning crops to ash, farmers should carbonize it and get carbon removal credits for doing so.
  • Using the resulting biochar in combination with microbial inoculants in the impacted soils may help suppress or control the negative impacts of the pathogen in future years (Liu et al.,  2023). This is particularly helpful in acidic or sandy soils as biochar may provide a liming effect and help hold on to nutrients which may improve plant defenses.
  • FHB can lead to mycotoxins which can lead to ill health in livestock (and humans) that consume contaminated crops. Biochar (activated charcoal) has long been used as a binder to immobilize toxins (e.g. mycotoxins, herbicides, etc.) enabling them to pass through a body with minimal negative impacts. [“Legend” has it that the reason the US FDA took activated charcoal off of the approved feed additives list was that a farmer was using it to mask tainted feed.]

Given warmer and wetter weather, fusarium and other pathogens will continue to threaten food security (yields can diminish by up to 75%) as well as food safety. The potential economic, health and geopolitical implications are enormous. If we can showcase how biochar has played a significant role in mitigating FHB for farmers in different geographies growing different crops, then I think we will see a more rapid adoption of biochar than we have seen to date.

So much of the attention focused on biochar lately is about its permanence compared to other carbon removal technologies. I would venture to say that few other CDR solutions can not only help bury carbon, but can contribute to a healthier, less fragile food future.

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