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Biochar Pilot Program Aims for Carbon-Negative Coffee

With more than 2 billion cups consumed each day, coffee is one of the world’s most popular beverages. Most consumers of the black liquid hail from industrialized countries — over 90 percent of coffee production occurs in developing countries and out of the bulk of climate change regulations’ reach.

Seeking to promote sustainable coffee production in the developing world, U.S.-based non-profit Radio Lifeline has launched the Black Earth Project, a new initiative aimed at helping farmers mitigate the growing effects of climate change through the use of biochar.

Biochar, a fancy word for charcoal, is produced through a process called pyrolysis, or the burning of dried biomass in a low- or zero-oxygen environment. The process prevents combustion and the usual release of carbon dioxide, black carbon and other greenhouse gases associated with traditional charcoal production methods.

“When used as a soil amendment, biochar can increase crop yields, reduce nutrient leaching, help retain moisture, reduce soil acidity and improve surrounding water quality while significantly reducing the need for additional irrigation and fertilizer inputs,” said Jason Aramburu, CEO of re:char, a leading developer of small-scale biochar technologies and Radio Lifeline’s partner in the project.

Biochar has stoked hopes for potentially becoming “carbon magnets” to store greenhouse gasses while increasing crop yield. Some big names in climate science have embraced the idea, including James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, and James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. As an added benefit, biochar has also been cited as an effective approach to carbon sequestration due to the fact it can remain stable in the soil for thousands of years.

The Black Earth Project is a two-year research project designed to evaluate the effectiveness of biochar when used as a soil amendment by smallholder coffee and pyrethrum farmers in Rwanda. The initiative will incorporate the use of re:char’s Climate Kiln, making possible a farm-centered approach to biochar production by utilizing various forms of agricultural crop residues, including dried corn stalks, grasses, rice hulls and coffee pulp as well as cow manure and wood chips.

A series of test plots will be constructed within Rwanda’s coffee and pyrethrum farming sectors to measure the benefits of using biochar as a soil amendment as compared to traditional petrochemical-based fertilizers. Farmers will be kept informed of the project’s progress via Radio Lifeline’s weekly farmer-focused programs, broadcast through its network of community radio stations.

“This project advances our goal of providing low-tech, locally-appropriate solutions to some of the biggest challenges that farmers in the developing world are facing today, including climate change, increased competition for natural resources, rising input costs and the complex issues related to food security,” said Peter Kettler, Executive Director of Radio Lifeline. "If successful, the Black Earth Project could eventually lead to the production of the world’s first carbon-negative coffee.”

Major funding for the Black Earth Project is being provided by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The project is scheduled to begin construction of test plots and initiate farmer training workshops on March 3 in Butare, Rwanda.

Sustainable agriculture has gained much traction in recent years. Last month, the Supply Chain Working Group of the Sustainable Food Trade Association announced a draft voluntary Organic Industry Code of Conduct that any organic business can adopt and use to provide sustainability guidance to its supply chain.

@Bart_King is a freelance writer and communications consultant. @mikehower contributed.