Biochar and ISFM

Hosted by CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) and the University of Nairobi, hundreds of the foremost soil scientists in the world gathered in Nairobi this past week to discuss the interlinked issues of tropical soil degradation, poor yields, and environmental sustainability. At the center of a number of the discussions was how biochar fits in to the ISFM framework.

ISFM (Integrated Soil Fertility Management) is a holistic approach to agriculture with strong focuses on productivity, sustainability, and scientific rigor. The aim of ISFM is to create integrated farming systems rather than looking at individual farming practices as separate and somehow not intrinsically linked. Sustainably (and increasingly) productive farms require utilization of the symbiotic relationships that occur in nature, efficient application and use of nutrients (organic when available, inorganic when not), resilient seeds, and proper soil and landscape management.

When all of these things come together you see explosions in agricultural productivity such as those that have been observed throughout the western world over the course of the last century. Food security and environmentalism don’t have to be mutually exclusive endeavors as so many have made them out to be. This is especially the case when biochar use is adopted and implemented within an ISFM framework.

Cases were made for biochar’s positive impact on legume root nodulation, compost nutrient retention, and overall yield improvements. Additionally, a number of other soil benefits were discussed:

  • Improved water infiltration – to improve root growth and nutrient uptake as well as reduce topsoil erosion.
  • Liming effect – to balance out the acidity brought on by ammonium-based fertilizers and thus make nutrients more accessible by plants.
  • Improved microbial and fungal activity – organisms that both create and facilitate the movement of nutrients in the soil.

In some cases, African soils have been found to be almost entirely unresponsive to inorganic fertilizers largely because of the fact that the soil had almost no more remaining organic matter. By applying biochar to soil a farmer adds long-lasting organic matter in the form of highly stable carbon. This action has the capacity to improve soil responsiveness to nutrient addition.

At re:char we are always in the process of learning about the evolving worlds of agriculture and soil science. As such, we make sure to educate the farmers we reach about topics that go beyond just biochar. While we do this in an attempt to be socially responsible, it is also a necessary component of a successful business model.  A broad understanding of what it takes to achieve sustainable food security is much more valuable to a small hold farmer than a silo approach. As re:char becomes a farmer’s trusted technology and information provider, a much stronger relationship endures than one which neglects the complexity of needs inherent to farming in western Kenya.

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