Biochar is one of the most promising tools to build soil organic matter, remove carbon from the atmosphere, and improve soil health. That promise has prompted growing support for federal legislation to increase biochar research.
Biochar is a form of charcoal designed for use in soil. It is produced by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen – a process called pyrolysis. Potential sources of biomass feedstock include:
- dead wood, thinnings, and slash removed from forests to reduce wildfire risk
- grass and tree crops
- the portion of crop residues not needed to prevent soil erosion
Biochar is not new. Biochar from prairie and forest fires is a significant portion of the organic matter in the world’s agricultural soils. A growing body of research suggests that appropriately designed biochar can improve soil structure and health, enhance soil water-holding capacity, improve soil fertility, and increase yields while building soil carbon and organic matter.
Building and maintaining soil organic matter is challenging in annual cropping systems. Most crop residue left on soil breaks down in a few years. Even practices that add carbon like cover crops can stimulate microorganisms that decompose biomass, limiting the net gain in soil organic matter.
The unique promise of biochar is that it provides “recalcitrant” soil carbon that lasts for hundreds to thousands of years. That is why harvesting a portion of crop residue to produce biochar to be returned to soil can result in a net increase in soil carbon. Biochar far outlasts crop residue.
Interestingly, biochar can also extend the life of carbon from crop residue, cover crops, and other biomass that remains on the land. An Iowa State University found that the long-term increase in soil carbon several years after application of biochar was twice the carbon embodied in the biochar. Biochar slowed the decomposition of other soil carbon.
Biochar provides farmers, ranchers, and foresters the opportunity to become a powerful part of the solution to climate change. Soil is the globe’s second-largest carbon sink, holding three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. Agricultural soils alone hold about as much carbon as the atmosphere.
Thus, a 10% increase in carbon in agricultural soils across the globe would provide a 10% reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas most responsible for driving climate change. In addition, research has found that biochar can reduce soil emissions of nitrous oxide, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. That also keeps nitrogen in the soil and available to crops.
Biochar has great potential. But to achieve it, critical knowledge gaps must be filled. The research results on biochar have been inconsistent because there are many different types of biochar being applied in varying soils and circumstances. So, we need coordinated research to determine which types of biochar can be beneficial in varying soils and circumstances.
Bipartisan legislation has been proposed to meet that need. The Biochar Research Network Act of 2023 has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives as HR 1645 by Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), Kim Schrier (D-WA), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Sean Casten (D-IL), and Josh Harder (D-CA). It was introduced in the U.S. Senate as S.732 by Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Jon Tester (D-MT), John Thune (R-SD), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
The Act would establish a national network of up to 20 research sites to test the full range of biochar types across soils, regions, and application methods to assess its potential to enhance carbon sequestration, crop production, resource conservation, and agricultural resilience. It would support research to develop promising approaches to integrating biochar in farming and ranching systems, as well as forestry.
Support for the Act is growing. A long list of organizations, businesses, and individuals have written to the Agriculture Committees of Congress urging that the legislation be incorporated in the upcoming farm bill. NCAT’s Biochar Policy Project has been a leading force in developing and championing the bill. Click here to read the support letter.
Biochar is a win-win solution. It helps farmers, ranchers and foresters build healthy and productive soil and creates new opportunities to earn payments for removing carbon from the atmosphere. It provides a market for combustible materials removed from forests, supporting efforts to reduce wildfires. It offers the basis for building a new industry that creates jobs and opportunities across rural America along with new markets for biomass. And it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which lessens climate change.
There are many reasons to support biochar, which is why it has drawn bipartisan support at a time when the two major parties seem to rarely come together.
To learn more about the Biochar Research Network Act and how you can lend your voice to the campaign for its passage, contact Chuck Hassebrook at firstname.lastname@example.org.