Reviving Ancient Technology
GAIA International utilizes an ancient method of increasing crop yield in order to improve the lives of those existing by subsistence and communal farming. Our pilot study was undertaken in Pumamarca, Peru (outside Cusco) where we provided a way for smallholder farmers to see a significant increase in the quality and quantity of their farm’s crop production. GAIA initially worked with a small number of farmers, with farms ranging from 2 to 25 acres in most cases. Unlike expensive chemical fertilizers used in most industrialized countries, GAIA’s system of improving crop production is inexpensive and makes use of agricultural waste and natural fertilizers. This method is good for the environment, due to its negative carbon footprint and reduction of N2O and methane soil emissions, and it improves soil tilth and fertility while decreasing nutrient runoff.
This long-forgotten technique is the creation and use in agriculture of a special soil called Terra Preta, which includes a process of turning organic waste into charcoal (or biochar). Ancient Amazonian farmers made Terra Preta by combining various types of parent soil with biochar and natural fertilizers (such as animal bones and fish or turtle excrement). Biochar is a type of charcoal created from a method of slash-and-char, or by using a pyrolizer, where agricultural waste is incompletely burned to retain most of its carbon content. The charcoal is then mixed into the soil, along with high nutrient additions found locally. Once in the soil, the carbon binds with the nutrients of the fertilizers and allows it to be maintained in the soil for thousands of years. Research has shown that when charcoal and natural fertilizers are combined, it can yield as much as 880 percent more than when these fertilizers are used by themselves. (Steiner, University of Bayreuth, 2004)
Biochar is charcoal (carbon) produced when organic matter is baked at relatively low temperatures (<700 degrees C) in the absence of oxygen. After this baking process, approximately one-third of the initial mass remains in the form of charcoal. This charcoal, when used in the soil, is known as biochar. Biochar improves the soil by acting like a sponge, retaining plant nutrients and soil moisture. This improved soil quality results in higher crop yields, which is life changing for people who barely exist on subsistence farming (up to 880 percent increase according to the University of Bayreuth study, 2004). Considering that subsistence farming accounts for over 1 billion people worldwide, the potential for this technology to benefit those at the ‘base of the pyramid’ is quite large.
A Sustainable Future
Since GAIA’s methods use crop residues and agricultural waste, they are completely sustainable. Using renewable resources for the biomass source reduces the need for forest land, thereby preventing deforestation in the region. Another added benefit is that this method fits nicely into the plant cycle, storing carbon in the process of turning organic matter into charcoal (carbon) and then sequestering this captured carbon in the soil, where it remains for thousands of years. Additionally, Terra Preta methods have the ability to stymie the accelerated rate at which soil is degrading around the globe – which is predicted to deplete the world of arable land in only 100 years (World Population Awareness, 2012). Due to the many benefits of using biochar, GAIA’s partner in Peru has been able to facilitate a relationship with the Agricultural University in Cuzco (Universidad de San Antonio de Abad UNSAAC-KAYRA), where GAIA was able to obtain a land extension and began working with Professors and students on a biochar experiment (2014). Other partners to the project include: Carbon Roots International, who have served as consultants to GAIA and a major source of information on making biochar, due to their expertise acquired from working on this same process in Haiti (http://www.