U.S. government can do more to promote biochar

Charcoal-like biochar improves soil hydration and enhances agricultural production while it curtails nutrient leaching, increases nitrogen available to plants, and reduces the release of gas pollutants. (Credit: Ghasideh Pourhashem)

A new study shows how well-designed government policy can address the problem of high startup costs making it hard for some farmers to implement best environmental practices—especially with regard to biochar.

Biochar is a porous, charcoal-like material produced via pyrolysis, the high-temperature decomposition of biomass. It improves soil water properties and enhances agricultural production an average of 15 percent and also reduces nutrient leaching, increases nitrogen available to plants, and reduces the release of nitrogenous gases, which can improve local air quality.

A new policy study surveys existing government programs and details how they support the use of biochar to enhance agricultural productivity, sequester carbon, and preserve valuable soil. The federal government already has 35 programs that do—or could—promote biochar deployment to improve agricultural preservation and head off future environmental woes, researchers say.

More support

“Our previous research has shown that wide-scale application of biochar across the United States’ agricultural soils can save millions of dollars in health costs by improving regional air quality,” says Ghasideh Pourhashem, a former postdoctoral fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and now an assistant professor at North Dakota State.

But despite the accumulating evidence, policy makers are slow to adopt biochar. “Our new study shows how policy frameworks can support biochar as a resource-saving, crop-boosting, and health care-improving material,” Pourhashem says.

The United States has long invested in biofuels like ethanol, and the researchers argue that biochar deserves similar long-term support to improve the nation’s soil and food security strategy.

Caroline Masiello, a professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences, notes the financial disconnect between those who bear the cost of land-management changes and those who benefit.

“There are plenty of farmers who want to do the right thing, but the benefits of biochar don’t accrue entirely on-farm,” she says, citing examples like cleaner water and air. “This paper is about how policy can connect the costs borne by farmers with the benefits to us all.”

The only active loan guarantee program the researchers identified for biochar production is the Department of Agriculture’s Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical and Bio-based Product Manufacturing Assistance Program, which provides up to $250 million per project.

But Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture programs and initiatives in Iowa, Oregon, Colorado, and Minnesota provide nearly $250 million more in grants, matching or production payments, and tax credits. The researchers also identified eight programs that offer a total of nearly $30 million in research and development funding that implicitly support biochar.

Broad benefits

The researchers say the government’s emphasis on biochar production is inadequate and tilts heavily toward biofuels. They also note the need for more upfront investment in large biochar-focused production rather than small-scale facilities.

They suggest the development of a broadly accepted set of product standards for biochar could encourage investment.

“The potential long-term impacts of biochar are enormous,” says Kenneth Medlock, a fellow in energy and resource economics at Rice. “Much of the recent support for biochar has focused on its use for carbon dioxide sequestration, but the benefits are much broader.

“The potential effects on local air quality and water quality have implications that extend far beyond the application site, which makes policy supportive of investment in biochar production and market development something that should be seriously considered.”

The study appears in Global Change Biology Bioenergy. Rice’s Shell Center for Sustainability supported the research.

Source: Rice University