A Word from the Webmaster

Biochar is a very good thing

As Webmaster of CRAFT, it is my pleasure and my honour to introduce the reader to this eZine. As it says on the cover, CRAFT is a publication “where crafters of materials turn to crafting deeds and words”. Each issue has a theme, and the theme here is biochar.

Now some of you may be thinking: “Isn’t biochar like… just glorified charcoal? What’s the point of making a whole issue of a magazine about that?” They’re good questions – painful questions to hear, but they need to be answered.

Biochar is not the same as charcoal. Both are formed where wood (or other organic matter) are heated without oxygen. However, biochar is cooked at a lot lower temperature than charcoal, so as to preserve the structure of the wood and all its little cavities and oil. That’s all the better for organisms to harvest in when buried in the soil, which increases the fertility makes it more suitable for growing plants, which makes it easier to absorb carbon dioxide out of the air. That’s a virtuous cycle, my friends.

By contrast, charcoal is formed at higher temperatures, and the goal is to produce a substance for heat. Cavities may remain, but the oil vaporises off, and you get something close to pure carbon. And to get heat out of charcoal, one adds a lot of oxygen. This produces carbon dioxide. Not the same as biochar at all.

Okay, you still might be thinking “Biochar is not the same as charcoal, but a whole issue… sheesh.” And what can I say? Let me put it this way…

Australia got gypped in the decent soil stakes. Australia got gypped real good. Take an island like Java, which is not too far away, globally speaking. It may be small at 128,297 square kilometres, or half the size of Victoria, but it’s 500 deciVictorias of volcanic goodness – enough to support 135 million people. While the closest part of Oz to it is a place like the Shire of East Pilbara, with an even larger area of 380,000 sq km, yet an almost infinitesimally smaller population of 8,000 people. Okay, that area’s desert, but even the rest of Australia comes out to 22 million top. And why is our population so small, relatively speaking?

It’s not the water. Water has a lot to do with it, but even sparsely inhabited places like the Kimberleys get the monsoons.  It’s that most of our soils are no good. There are some areas that have barely adequate soil, but very few have world class ground – “throw a twig in it and it will form a bush in a week”, what have you. Geologically, we’re an old continent, and most potential nutrients got blown out or washed out to sea millions of years ago. Our volcanoes are few, we don’t have the tectonic upwelling of the Himalayas or the Andes, and even glacial action (another source of soil) is lacking. No wonder most of us live close to the sea – that’s where most of the good stuff it.

The worst thing is that with the recent advent of – ahem – “Western” agriculture, we’ve made a poor situation even poorer. People cut down trees to plant wheat, and discover that the trees are the only thing keeping down a very salty watertable indeed, with soil erosion thrown in. As for fertilizers – pah to that, unless you like your rivers running blue and green with toxic cyanobacteria. Plus we’re running out of places to get phosphates.

The trick in the tail is that Australia may be overpopulated beyond its carrying capacity while being one of the sparsest countries in the world. (To answer your question: we’re third in sparseness- behind Namibia and Mongolia). Tim Flannery, who has had a lot of good things to say about biochar, is still worried that there may be too many people here. After studying a lot of estimates from various people, he writes:

Given the desire of Australians to reserve some potentially arable land for purposes other than agriculture, particularly national parks and forests, and given the enormous challenge presented by soil degradation, a more realistic maximum population for Australia may be 20-30 million. A population of this size would also give Australians a chance to earn some money from food exports.

That doesn’t sound so bad, except when you read ahead.

Virtually all hunter-gatherer societies seem to possess a ‘golden rule’ of population. This is, that in ‘normal’ times, the human population of a given area rarely exceeds 20-30% of the carrying capacity of the land (Sahlins 1968). This occurs because people are long-lived and usually reproduce slowly… Australia’s high rainfall variability and fragile natural environment mean that special care should be taken. It would appear to make good sense to observe the ‘golden rule’ of population in determining Australia’s ‘carrying capacity’.

Flannery doesn’t spell it out, but putting paragraph A and paragraph B together comes to the ‘golden rule’ population for Australia as between 4 million and 12 million. And what are we again? 22 million. Oh Bugger.

So what can we do about it? We being individuals, families, groups, what have you. What can we as people do about Australia’s shortage of good soil? If we can’t do big things of merit, perhaps we can do small things of goodness. Planting biochar in your gardens might be a good start.

Discuss - No Comments

No comments yet. Why not add one below?

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Note marked required (*) fields.