How Could Biochar Lead To Better Soils For Mexican Farmers?
A Brazilian researcher is working with Mexican farmers to test soils using biochar: a carbon-rich material showing promise in increasing water retention and fertility.
Biochar is a porous, solid material produced in an oxygen-poor environment from organic materials (like wood chips) that would otherwise have been burnt and release carbon into the atmosphere.
According to Sara de Jesús Duarte, Research and Development Leader for The Next 150 who has a PhD in Soil and Plant Nutrition, has been running an “On-field experiment” from March 2023 on two farms in Guanajuato, Mexico, to demonstrate the potential of biochar to increase water retention and soil fertility, while reducing agricultural production costs.
“This opportunity has the potential to generate significant impact by increasing awareness and understanding of biochar among the local farming community, which could lead to more sustainable farming practices,” she says, “This project is of great importance, as its direct impact extends to approximately 23,000 farmers in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, and will serve as a model for the large-scale use of biochar enriched and non-enriched with microorganisms in Vertisols.”
Duarte says there has been a growing consensus in the scientific community about the potential benefits of biochar on agriculture and carbon emissions, but that these benefits can vary significantly depending on the type of biochar, specific pyrolysis conditions, soil type and climate to which it is applied, which is where where the trials come in.
“Biochar has significant potential to reduce the need for agricultural irrigation, improve the chemical, physical and biological quality of the soil and serve as an effective tool in carbon sequestration, thus avoiding its release into the atmosphere,” she says, “Improved soil is fundamental to more robust and productive agricultural development.
Duarte grew up in the rural city of Presidente Tancredo Neves, in Bahia, Brazil.
“I grew up in a small town surrounded by rural areas, where educational and professional opportunities were limited, but my passion for improving conditions for farmers drove me to seek applied knowledge in the agricultural sciences,” she says, “My career path reflects my roots in an agricultural area, as part of my family are farmers, as I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the tilling of the earth, the needs of farmers and the lack of access to training.”
Duarte says that since her early undergraduate years, she’s been involved in research in the field of soil physics, actively participating in projects exploring the impact of various agricultural management practices on soil physical and chemical properties.
“My quest for knowledge in this field led me to pursue my master’s and doctoral studies at the prestigious University of São Paulo, recognized as the best in Latin America and during my stay there, I became an expert in soil and plant nutrition,” she says, adding that her current research area focuses specifically on the effect of biochar on soil physical, chemical and hydraulic properties.
Duarte says it is essential that scientists from the Global South lead research on global challenges, as they bring unique perspectives, experiences, and expertise critical to finding contextually relevant and equitable solutions.
“Countries in the Global South often face increased exposure to natural disasters and extreme weather events,” she says, “Local scientists are in a unique position to lead research on adaptation and resilience, developing strategies that help communities cope effectively with these events.
Biochar in Bolivia
Another researcher in the Global South working on biochar is José Fernando Grajeda Cruz, Head of R&D at Exomad Green.
Grajeda and his fellow Bolivian researchers are taking forestry waste that otherwise would have been burnt and turning it into a carbon-dense product useful to farmers
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Grajeda explains that biochar also has a wide variety of benefits for the South American country which help mitigate additional emissions.
“For Bolivia the most important it would be the fact that by improving crop yields, it will reduce deforestation due to the fact, that the locals will no need to clear down more forest in order to compensate yield reduction due to soil degradation,” he says.