Biochar Discussions July 12, 2013
For those of you who are not familiar with biochar there are many resources. The one I am closest to is the Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative. Check out their website for other links and a full range of factual information and events, particularly the 2nd USBI North American Biochar Symposium, October 13-16, 2013 at UMASS Amherst, MA.
The work that Karen Ribeiro, 2013 Symposium Coordinator, is doing to pull all the threads of biochar topics together is a herculean task – not because of the power needed to connect these strands of information or the weight of the physical topic, rather because there are so many ways to look at the problems and issues that present themselves at every turn. In each meeting she patiently listens and challenges all participants to think outside the box all the while knowing that she has an imminent deadline for some portion of a very real and pragmatic outcome.
The biochar banquet considerations offer a case in point:
A fish dish was being considered. A local company had started in a hill town and had originally planned to raise fish there from eggs gathered 12,000 miles away. The local source of fish was a draw. How was biochar involved with fish raising? What was the current business model? Should fish be involved in a largely agrarian solution model? Was local sourcing actually more energy efficient than shipping frozen containers of harvested fish half-way around the world?
These questions and more took up a substantial portion of one meeting, and a lot was learned in the discussion and more was still on the table when the decision to have a fish dish was tabled.
One of the areas that developed was, “what should the role of the banquet be for those who attend?”
A well-researched argument was made for the importation of non-local produce on the grounds that local production of small quantities of any product would always be more energy intensive than “efficiently” organized large scale production with container sized distribution capabilities.
This left me with the dilemma of contradicting my strongly held belief that for sustainability of any activity there must be an overwhelming and significant component of the activity that is done on or near the site of the organic portion of the activity. Walmart has claimed “green” status by delivering massive amounts of product from very distant production points to any point of the globe. This claim could lull almost anyone into acceptance of the profit potential of these transactions for Walmart as a necessary component of “sustainability”.
While I may not be able to refute the energetic claims of Walmart I reject the use of this argument when considering real long term sustainable systems. The reality is that large entities exist on cheap energy and the “profit” that they can skim off of transactions where they maximize the “externalities” that they can impose on others. When their profit cannot be sustained their presence will disappear, and those who came to depend on that presence will have to fend for themselves.
The production of biochar has similar difficulties. Biochar cannot exist without forming charcoal first. There are many ways to make char, the natural ones have ancient histories – forest fires, deep burial of organic matter and subsequent up lift, volcanic eruptions flowing over organic matter. The human caused production methods may mimic nature in the open burning of organic debris or they can involve recovery of many different components of the organic matter during the process of getting to the char. The char may be a primary product or a secondary by-product of another more rewarding process.
The Biochar banquet at the Symposium has many possible functions. For Karen it is an information platform which is as important as the “normal” banquet function of feeding a large group in an orderly and peaceful manner. The question of what is biochar comes up everywhere! One of the uses of charcoal involves functions that must be performed before the char should be called biochar. At the banquet planning discussions the question of how char should be presented in its original (unmodified) state was discussed. Char is frequently used to remove toxins from organic systems – people do not hear much about this until they need it and then it is administered in a very private setting. Animals of other kinds may seek it out themselves or be fed it on a regular or as needed basis. Dairy farmers generally keep a supply of charcoal tablets to give cows who have been poisoned by something they ate. Should the diners be presented with the opportunity to consume some raw charcoal? If so how and should they know it, seek it, smell it??? Should it be called “biochar” at that point?
My hat is permanently removed to Karen for her persistence in following this goal of communicating these conundrums to us all.
For me local inefficient commodity distribution calls for innovation of sustainable energy source identification and enabling proactivity rather than endorsing bigness because it works today. Thank you, Karen, for keeping this discussion going.