Is biochar a panacea for the coffee and cocoa industries' carbon problem?

February 12, 2024

Episode #7: Is biochar a panacea for the coffee and cocoa industries' carbon problem?

In Episode #7 of the Carblecast, Sander Reuderink, CEO at Carble, talks with Kathleen Draper, Chair Board of the International Biochar Initiative. Kathleen shares her extensive knowledge and experience within the biochar industry and unveils how biochar could help carbon challenges within the coffee and cocoa industry. Listen and watch the episode or read the blog below.

Is biochar a panacea for the carbon emission problems of the coffee and cocoa industries? Before we spoke to Kathleen Draper, we did not have a clue. But before we answer if this is or isn’t the case, let’s look at the definition of biochar first.

What is biochar? 

Kathleen's research shows that 98% of the organic material found on coffee or cocoa farms can be used as biochar: think of coffee berry pulp and coffee grounds or even tree stumps of any size. In the cocoa industry, cocoa pods are used to make biochar. Biochar is created out of your selected materials because you burn it and make sure no oxygen can reach it. What you get is an unappetizing black substance that looks like burnt toast. 

If you put the burnt organic material in the ground, something miraculous happens: you retain about half of the carbon in the organic material that was absorbed during the life of that organic material. Due to biochar's ability to store carbon, biochar is an essential component of carbon reduction strategies.

For coffee and cocoa farmers, the threshold to make biochar is quite low. The technique to make a natural underground biochar cone in the ground is quite manageable, and the costs are low too. Farmers dig a deep hole and start a fire with dry and organic material. After a few layers of ash appear, the farmers continue to add more material to the fire. The flames rise, and no oxygen reaches the lower regions of the pile. Due to the absence of oxygen, the material at the bottom turns into biochar.

This biochar technique is centuries old (with some farming sites dating back 8000 years). Scientists have found anthropogenic soils in multiple places around the world, including China, Europe, South America, and Africa.

What benefit does biochar offer to coffee and cocoa farmers?

With the growing demand for biochar, coffee and cocoa farmers are getting more opportunities to benefit from this age-old technique. A recently introduced methodology is the Artisan C-Sink, initiated by Carbon Standards International, which aims to pay farmers to make and store biochar on their farms. It's not life-changing money, but it's a premium intended to promote behavioral change. Another benefit of biochar for coffee and cocoa farmers is that they pay less for fertilizer because homemade biochar becomes a viable substitute.

During our conversation with Kathleen, she listed the following benefits for farmers:

  • increased harvest: because biochar acts as an organic fertilizer
  • premiums through the sale of biochar carbon credits
  • cost reduction for purchasing fertilizers

Cost savings are the greatest benefit for farmers. At the same time, reducing synthetic fertilizer is also better for the climate - and perhaps creates the largest opportunity for biochar to positively impact the climate.

The potential of biochar within the coffee and cocoa industry 

Kathleen says that biochar has enormous potential because both the coffee and cocoa industries are powered by millions of small-scale farmers. Kathleen explains that methods, such as the Artisan C-Sink methodology, enable farmers to sell carbon credits. The key lies in thorough training for coffee and cocoa farmers so that they produce biochar the right way. Spreading the technique can lead to more supply in the market, reducing demand for synthetic fertilizers - which cause more carbon emissions.

Biochar is not a panacea for all carbon problems within the coffee and cocoa industries. But, it is a piece of the puzzle to reduce our emissions in countries of origin.

Questions after watching or reading through episode #7 of the Carblecast? Please reach out

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