Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
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March 20, 2011
Char Muddle

It's a shame that climate nutters have been trying to hijack biochar as a method to advance their agendas.

The biochar concept has challenged scientists to figure out the best approach to turning waste organic material into stable carbon. This exciting new development has attracted the attention of researchers like John Miedema. ...

He was an early adopter of the global warming concept, and is concerned with mitigating the amount of excess CO2 being deposited in the Earth’s atmosphere. He’s also concerned about devising new methods to feed the population of the world. “We burn fossil fuels to produce our nitrogen fertilizers,” Miedema said. “As the supply is reduced the price of production and transportation of those fertilizers will go up. The implications of high prices and food riots is significant. This is a problem we have to figure out sooner than later.” ...

“We’re not going to see the ‘50 cows on 50 acres’ farms like the one my grandfather had,” he said. “In that kind of situation the animals would supply the soil with nutrients at a stable rate. Now we’re seeing ‘5000 cows on 5 acres’ in contained feedlots and the problems inherent in those operations. There’s a lot of that waste going into our water supply.” Miedema wants to capture the nutrients from animal waste products and cycle them back into the farm field with biochar.

There's a lot of confusion and sloppy talk in this. It isn't that we "burn fossil fuels to produce our nitrogen fertilizers", it is that we use natural gas, methane, as the feedstock to supply the hydrogen needed for ammonia synthesis using the Haber-Bosch process. We could get the methane in other ways, inlcuding by bacterial digestion of the manure that Miedema wants to, ahem, burn. And we could get hydrogen as a coproduct of Miedema's manure burning, eliminating the need for methane.

Even so, if the worry is that the supply of fossil fuels will diminish and become more expensive, making the transportation of fertilizers expensive, imagine how it will affect the feed lot business needing to haul in feed for 5,000 steers. The arguments make no sense even in their own terms.

Besides, 50 cows on 50 acres set stocked and neglected was never an environmentally sound system.

Range science (reductionist) designed management would dictate that the livestock numbers be limited to a certain stocking rate to prevent overgrazing. That the animals be run on some form of rest rotation system, rotation every x days, set stocking system or other simple "management system." The consequence of any of these could be analysed using the holistic framework and we would learn that all of them would lead to further desertification no matter how flexible or adaptable they were. There are several reasons why such simple management systems would fail eventually:

* Overgrazing has nothing to do with animal numbers and we often need three or four times as many animals to heal the land;

There is a window of opportunity to exploit a temporary issue with manure as a biochar feedstock, but it has nothing to do with fossil fuels, climate change or agronomic improvement. Those are the excuses used to get funding to play around with pyrolysis. It's grantsmanship: not science, not environmentalism and not helpful. But at least Miedema understands some of the issue:
Throughout all this, Miedema tries to be realistic about biochar and his expectations. He recognizes that for biochar to be viable, there needs to be consumer and investor interest. “Nobody is going to pay me to sequester carbon.” He continued, “There’s no value in carbon. It’s upon me to prove the tangible value of the product I’m making. ...

Miedema isn’t looking to sell carbon sequestering potential, he merely sees it as added information for the consumer market. He wants to market biochar for agriculture and horticulture purposes while informing consumers how much carbon they’re sequestering. “I want to adopt the organic movement as a model. In this model, the consumers have a line of sight back to production. They make their choice based on where the product came from, what was used to grow or process it, and how it affected the environment. I think people will see a similar value in carbon sequestration. When they buy biochar for their home garden, they will also be able to see how much carbon they are taking out of the atmosphere,” Miedema said.

It's hard to fault a fellow who is just trying to make a buck exploiting the gullibility of consumers since to some extent everyone does that, but it gripes me that biochar people, like organic people, are selling a pig in a poke, claiming benefits that are nonsensical. The amount of carbon sequestered by gardeners is less than trivial, just as the amount of food produced by organic growers is trivial. It's fashionable nonsense in certain sub-cultures, but has no import for the global issues of climate change, fossil fuel depletion or world food production. There may be a business there that can make a little money, but it should be honest about the issues.
Posted by back40 at 08:42 PM | Ag-tech

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