Re: New biochar publication (#2)
I am so new to the list that I am not even sure that this is the proper way
to respond to an ongoing discussion. If nothing else, I apologize for the
length of what follows, which falls into two parts, one which addresses the
"debate" per se and the other provides suggestions.
I follow these many biochar groups from afar because I literally live far
away in the mountains of North Thailand. My primary mental occupation
reading the posts is to translate them into information useful to the
people I work with/for - extremely poor smallholders working very marginal
mountain soils. Quite apart from the fact that I lack the remarkable
scientific credentials that all of you possess - I trained as a political
scientist and owe what I know about biochar and sustainable agriculture to
hands-on field work - I will admit that I often find reading these threads
Three things stand out about the discourse. First is the lack of civility,
remarkable even to someone who spend 30 years at a major university.
Second, and I am sure closely related, is the common practice of
diminishing the importance of the task at hand for the ends of
self-promotion. Third, and most important, is the regular failure to pursue
a constructive, collective research design effort that would - one would
hope - begin to generate a better, broader, rather than still more
fragmented understanding of our subject.
I do not think that my first point requires much elaboration. Anyone who
has served in an unhappy department recognizes the signs of a dysfunctional
community in these threads. Until we can learn to bite our tongues, show
some basic respect for others and demonstrate a capacity to go along to get
along, biochar, as a field of research, will continue to see much of its
energy spun off in personal spite. Such a waste. So many opportunities
As for my second observation, I am all for naming really big discoveries
for really great discoverers. Higgs certainly deserves to get his boson
named after him. But the frantic efforts to name biochar "technology"
strike me as both pathetic and indicative of this same underlying
dysfunction in the field. We are, after all, talking about "technical"
variations in what are really jumped-up charcoal makers. Anyone in my old
field who tried to rename a theory for himself/herself because (s)he
re-jiggered an index would be laughed out the door. The project is not
about ego and ego gratification, it is about better understanding biochar
and how to make it better.
Which leads to my third observation. Having trained in the social sciences,
I am used to the mockery of "hard" scientists who ask: "So, what's
scientific about politics?" The answer, of course, lies in how you study
it. And here is where I have been most disappointed with the research on
biochar. Despite the inevitable complaints that there must be more of it,
what strikes me as an outsider is how little effective use has been made of
all of the effort that has been poured into research already.
I can think of two reasons for this, one easily dismissed and one cause for
a challenge. The easily dismissed reason is simply that most research, most
of the time is tediously reductive. If it is observed that different
feedstocks produce different biochars, then "testing" different feedstocks
- one after another after another - qualifies as research. Biochar, like
all fields, is full of such "research."
To put it colloquially, what drives me crazy, especially as an outsider, is
that even the good research does not seem to cumulate to anything tangible.
I have never in my life encountered another field with so many "on the one
hand...but on the other hands" without any clear efforts to establish an
embracing theoretical construct, even at the middle level. In biochar, it
seems, every result is not only important, it is equally important, such
that there is no fixed ground, all is detail, all is fact without "factur."
This observation, based on a huge amount of "innocent" reading, brings me
back to the thread regarding the proposed new journal and its assertion
that "Biochar has been a very popular research topic and a large amount of
scientific literature has been produced in the last decade...However,
before proceeding to recommend massive use of biochar in soil, more
research is necessary to have enough knowledge and understanding of biochar
This assertion leads me in three directions. First it leads me to ask:
Where is the big research design? What is the project we are all working
on? What is all of this 'research' supposed to add up to?
Here, I must say, I am impressed by this particular thread's emphasis on
actual field testing by extension agents. If these guys are out convincing
real farmers to test stuff and not simply running tests in 10x10 plots,
then we are getting somewhere, we are getting to the point that scientists
are forming coherent research questions related to real world performance
that can be tested in the real world. It is precisely this lack of coherent
research questions - coherent in the sense that they constitute meaningful
questions and coherent in the sense that they coher with one another - that
I have missed most in the black hole that is biochar research.
Second, I really have to ask: what is all this for? I do understand the
imperatives of funding and so the fact that biochar research tends to be
climate change and energy funding driven. But there is still a very, very
big world of agriculture out here that has, or I suppose I should say
"ought to have" a big interest in biochar. Yes, there is some research on
biochar and this crop or that crop in this field or that field here or
there. But Christ on a Crutch, can you use biochar to improve your egg
plant yield? I mean, here I am running an incredibly under-funded,
over-extended nonprofit at the edge of the world and the only way I can
tell my farmers that biochar will help their corn is to conduct field tests
for them? Do I have the time (or the money) for this? And, jeez, if no one
is conducting basic research like this on farm performance in the developed
world, when the hell is anyone going to get around to doing it for the
developing world? Where do you think people live? Who do you think needs
Sorry. Got carried away.
Third, and in line with the challenges set out by critics in this thread,
the peculiarities of biochar research, specifically, its intense commitment
to specification, lead me to ask: where are the competent vulgarizers of
the huge, existing biochar literature?
What do I mean?
Let me close by trying to put this in the context of the work that I do and
by trying to explain why the call for lots of new research before we begin
to talk about using biochar on a large scale drives me crazy.
I am not a research scientist, although I do conduct randomized plot,
multi-replicate, multi-year tests of biochars. I am not interested in
refinement. I am not interested in customization. I *am *interested in risk
- but as regards the call for further research, despite all of my reading
(including not only edition 2 of the "bible" but most of the cited articles
in the relevant chapters), I have never run across strong evidence that
putting basic, properly conditioned biochar into degraded soils will make
I live in a world where the average income is below $1.50 a day, where at
current levels of technology 2/3's of the population cannot support
themselves on the land they "own," where soil pH is 4.5 to 5, OM is under
1% and there is often no soil microbiota. I live in a world where everyone
burns all of their field waste, where particulate inhalation kills infants
and old people and reduces the labor capacity of "healthy" adults. I live
in a world typical of the large "fringe" of the developing world where our
2.54 billion poorest people live.
I have lots of challenges, but in my thinking, biochar (as I have learned
about it) lies at the heart of a coherent, if partial, solution to some of
the leading ones. Producing biochar from field waste stops GHG, dioxin and
particuate emissions. In the soil, biochar sequesters CO2, mitigates
climate change risk by retaining water, improves soil structure, raises pH,
and promotes microbiota growth. It also improves yields, adding to farmers'
Note: I am talking about one "biochar" - and for a reason.
I live in a world in which: (1) farmers have no control over the feedstock
they use; (2) the technology available to farmers is homemade and permits
no modulation of temperature; (3) farmers cannot test their soil; and (4)
farmers will plant whatever they are going to plant.
Where I live, there are no variables; there is just "biochar" - the stuff
you get. Based on my reading, I have come to the conclusion that despite
all of the specifications, there is, in fact, some*thing* that we can call
"biochar" that has sufficiently common, good attributes in our soil that it
merits not only using, but pushing.
The challenges confronting me are therefore to: (1) design biochar machines
that will accept all shapes and sizes of feedstock; (2) design biochar
machines that can be made locally from scrap metal; (3) demonstrate to
farmers (and myself) that whatever biochar they can make will "work" in
whatever soil they have; and (4) demonstrate to farmers (and myself) that
whatever biochar they can make will "work" in whatever soil they have with
whatever crop they need to grow.
This is not an insignificant challenge for many reasons. Anyone who are
worked in very poor, rural communities will understand what a challenge the
basic extension is. But more to the point, what matters is not what I can
demonstrate here with the few thousand farmers in our villages; what
matters is that if this works, it can be replicated all over the developing
world with important climate change, health and poverty reduction effects.
- Farmers' in the developing world produce 330 gigatons of black carbon
annually burning their fields. Were any significant portion of this
converted to biochar, the climate change impact would be big.
- The annual conversion of any significant portion of field waste to
biochar and its application as a soil conditioner would also sequester
millions of tons of CO2,
- The elimination of black carbon (mostly PM2.5 and smaller) would
reduce the incidence of respiratory and cardio-vascular disease, and
stroke, and infant mortality and premature death rates.
- The availability of biochar soil conditioner would increase the crop
yields of the poorest farmers the most, reducing poverty and improving food
No amount of further research about the specifics of the biochars produced
by additional types of feedstocks will do these people any good.
What I need is the opposite: I need research about the basic commonalities
of biochars and its (biochar's) performance is commonally encountered soils
with the most common staple and cash crops of the developing world. This is
not the research agenda mentioned above, which will serve developed world
farmers well. They can control for almost all variable and with irrigation
can even adjust for rainfall. Their research needs are for the performance
characteristics of customized biochars for specific soils and crops -
something that any high-tech developed world biochar manufacturer can
easily produce. My research needs are the opposite, and I lay them out
Now, my needs are obviously entirely different from the needs of the
research science community. But then, what I think is revealed in this
thread is that "biochar" the subject is not one, but many.
Perhaps it is time that we stopped asking everyone to be everything.
Perhaps it is time that we recognized that there are different biochar
constituencies out there - and that these different constituencies began to
formulate their needs from each other into actionable requests rather than
As for myself, I think that there are substantial, reseach-consuming but
action-oriented communities interested in two distinct areas:
1. Biochar and climate change globally, whether in the developed or
developing world. This mandate might be broadened to biochar and the
environment to include biochar and non-climate change related environmental
issues such as soil and water decontamination.
2. Biochar and the developing world, including climate change and
environmental issues in general, sustainable agriculture, food security,
In each instance, I would suggest that the pubications be written for an
interested and informed public, not fellow researchers, in order to make
them readily available to IO and INGO staff, that articles be in English
with abstracts in 1 or 2 other international languages, and that they
include limited citations to key references.
As for actionable requests, here are mine as a member of both of these new
- Is it possible to develop additional compilations of chemicals biochar
can adsorb or otherwise cause to break down along the lines of the work
started by Josh Kearns?
- Note 1: Here specifics about biochars may be unavoidable, but in
presentation, perhaps attention can be paid to categorizing groups of
biochars by performance rather than simply listing alphabetically.
- Is it possible to conduct a meta-analysis to identify the common
characteristics of biochar in degraded soils?
- Note 1: This will surely require a similar meta-analysis to identify
the common characteristics of biochar.
- Note 2: This will surely require the specification of a short list
of major degraded soil types, the purpose of the exercize being
the user of the need to have highly detailed soil maps (generally not
available, at least not with GPS capacity) or farmers to have soil tests
(again, generally not available).
- Is it possible to develop field-tested data regarding best-practices
for application rates and means for different crops?
(As in my classes when I still taught, the rule is "no criticism without a
Behind both requests lies a common request: please remember your audience
and think "communication."
Please bear in mind that you have two audiences: audience of fellow
scientists and an audience of biochar practitioners who need your results
presented in a clear and compelling fastion. Please take Prof. Toufte to
I apologize for both the length and the rambling nature of this post. My
known inability to stay on point has kept me from posting before and I will
probably return to my own guidelines regarding posting in the future.
On Tue, Jul 26, 2016 at 7:42 AM, Ronal W. Larson firstname.lastname@example.org
[biochar] <email@example.com> wrote: