Why isn’t biochar big?
A hypothesis, in four parts.
Generally, the people I interview in the field of biochar equivocate. “It’s early,” “or “we’re in stage one,” or “the field is just now starting to grow.” On one hand, I know what they mean: interest in biochar has spiked over the last 18 months. On the other...we’re talking about a technology that predates homo sapiens.
Leaving the question: Considering biochar’s former ubiquity as a soil and feed amendment how did we get here, of all places? After spending much of 2020 (huddled in my bunker) talking to some of the smartest people in the biochar industry, I’ve developed a hypothesis. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to break down my thoughts on why biochar hasn’t made it big into four pieces, starting with this one:
Part 1: The (con)founding story of biochar
When you first look into biochar, the story you discover is remarkable. An easy-to-make amendment used by indigenous communities in the Amazon turned some of the world’s worst soil into its most productive. The terra preta (black earth) cultivated there remains to this day fertile ground (for both plants and hyperbole. Ahem.) Throughout Europe and the US biochar was commonly used as a feed amendment for cows and other farm animals. It was known to improve digestion and, critically, won its eaters prizes at local livestock competitions. In Cambodia, rice farmers made biochar from rice husks. They then added it to their rice paddies to improve water quality and soften hard clay soils.
This all really happened, of course, but it is so much, and so miraculous, it almost feels like lore. You see this enthusiasm preserved particularly well in the amber of TEDx presentations from 2011-2014 (still on Youtube.) Watch a couple of those videos, and you’ll think, Jeez, how could I have been so blind? A solution so obvious to a problem so important! Surely a quick Google search will reveal biochar companies scaling worldwide.
Alas, the results are not what you might expect. There is a lot of stuff out there: small scale producers, DIY kits, abandoned websites extolling biochar’s virtues, a wave of academic work in tones between defensive and euphoric, a few regional distributors. The rollercoaster of the experience, though--the high of rediscovering work so important and apparently so lost, the obviousness and appropriateness of the solution, the surge in expectations... and the letdown of finding what looks to be a fragmented industry (perhaps still on the verge of a breakthrough) — well, reader, it doesn’t build confidence. You think: Huh, weird. Maybe this isn't an ancient nostrum but ancient snake oil.
And this feeling, of wondering if it’s snake oil, causes a divide - separating everyone who learns about biochar in believers and non-believers right from the start. If you are 1) highly critical of industrial agriculture, or 2) an engineer interested in the climate, the story of biochar is catnip. See, right here, written in ancient hand in the very ground we stand on: proof that we’ve been going down the wrong path with our tractors and sprays. The answer is to use those engineering degrees and build the machine that will bring biochar to the world! Welcome to the believer camp.
For the non-believers, the idea of slowly burning biomass and sticking it back in the ground sounds regressive and quaint and out of touch. Farmers are working with razor thin margins in a global economy designed to squash them. Everyone, including the bank who they owe money to and the companies that sell the tractor and seed they went into debt for, tells them that bigger machines, better sprays, larger acreage is the way forward. Nevermind the really sticky part: biochar isn’t cheap. So, it’s an expensive soil additive that will deliver results that will vary dramatically by soil type and works best if I convert my whole farm to organic, and it’s hard to buy in large quantities? Welcome to the non-believer camp.
For the vast majority of the potential market, biochar’s founding story is both confusing and divisive, and shuffles people into categories of ‘believer’ or ‘non-believer.’ This division has covered the sector in a cloud of controversy that it has yet to escape. With that in mind, I’m not surprised to see an increasing number of biochar companies that simply never mention the word “biochar.” They want no part of biochar’s romantic and mystical past. To wit, companies developing biochar products for specific applications would rather frame them as new inventions.
I haven’t explained WHY any of this happened, but I’ll start in on it next week. In the meantime, keep the biomass (not quite) burning for me.