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Could ancient Amazonian technology save our soil?


Hidden in research journals is a very interesting story of farming crops which can be dated back to the Amazonian Civilisations, 4000 years ago.

Today in the UK we have over-farmed our land, growing crops year after year, devastating the soil health. The latest projections suggest we only have 45 harvests left if we keep farming crops as we have done for years. This practice is based on a multi-billion industry of chemicals: fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, soil conditioners, suppressants etc.

Why do we need to farm with damaging chemicals? Surely there must be an all-natural and safe solution? Maybe one that has been lost in time?

The human population started farming crops long before we started using chemicals on the soil.

There is an ancient way of growing crops using charcoal in the soil to regenerate the soil biodiversity and in turn boost plant growth. Taking soil samples from the Amazon rainforest and using carbon dating has revealed the ancient civilisations deliberately added charcoal to their soil, and this soil is unbelievably fertile and rich.

This soil would never naturally evolve in the rainforest due to the intense competition between plants. This was a farming practice which turned the nutrient poor Amazon soils into a nutrient rich farm land to feed populations of over 100,000 people. The research community has named this soil Terra Preta (also known as Biochar).

How does the charcoal create nutrient rich soils? And how does it stack up against today’s chemicals?

Charcoal has a giant surface area, it’s incredibly porous and these pores are negatively charged. They attract water and nutrients, which in turn attracts microbes. The charcoal turns into a microbe hotel, and the diversity of the microbes in the soil blooms. As the microbes grow they produce essential nutrients for the plants to grow.

The massive problem with today’s practice, is using chemical pesticides and herbicides on our soil kills the nutrient-making microbes. And we then add more chemicals to replace the nutrients we have lost. It’s a vicious cycle which we need to completely reform.

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This is an introduction to how Biochar could regenerate soil health worldwide and I will continue writing more on the topic. I’ve done professional field trials, as have many many others in the research community, which clearly shows Biochar to outperform today’s farming practices. If you like this story, you can share it and stay tuned!

Lottie has a BSc in Plant Biology and she co-founded Agile Planet which is trialling Biochar across the UK as a sustainable solution to reform soil health.