Biochar for sustainable agriculture


Market demand and regulations are increasingly pushing for sustainable agricultural practices. This trend is driven by considerations such as product quality, soil health and resilience, water savings, carbon emissions, and sustainable waste disposal. However, transitioning to these practices usually comes with lower yields, that higher product prices cannot always compensate.

Finding solutions that are both sustainable and productive is thus very challenging, especially given the increasing food demand. Biochar can be a key tool to address these challenges, benefiting players all stages of the agri value chain.

At field level

In the soil, biochar acts as a carbon sponge that retains water and nutrients at plant root level. It also helps rebalance soil pH and improve soil aeration. All these benefits can improve soil health while reducing the need for irrigation and fertiliser use.

For farmers, this translates into significanlty higher yields (order of magnitude: +25%) and/or lower costs (depending on yield or fertiliser-saving approach), thus improving their income.

For climate, reducing the application of synthetic fertilisers reduces more than proportionnally GHG emissions from fertiliser production (CO2) and use (N2O). This is particularly interesting as agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change and generaters very hard-to-abate emissions.

At processing level

Agro-processing facilities (e.g., coffee or cocoa dehusking, palm oil or sugar cane extraction) generate large amounts of residues. In the tropics, these biomasses usually have little valorisation schemes and are a logistical – and sometimes environmental – problem for companies. Biochar can be an easy and valuable way to dispose of these residues.

Additionnally, sourcing crops grown with biochar can be of great interest for agro-processing companies, as crop production will increase over time, hence processing volumes. Similarly for product quality.

Biochar can even be a way for processing facilities to secure long-term partnerships with farmers, by establishing a circular, win-win model.

An agro-processing facility swamped with coffee husk in Minas Gerais, Brazil.
An agro-processing facility swamped with coffee husk in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

At trading level

Intermediaries who are buying processed crops to cooperatives or processing facilities can benefit from biochar by sourcing higher-qualiy products with a lower carbon footprint (carbon removal in soils and avoided emissions from lower fertiliser use). This increases the value of the product they offer to buyers, especially in the case of FMCGs.

At retailing level

All major FMCG companies have take carbon-neutrality commitments covering their entire value chain. Most of their emissions come from scope-3 activities, i.e., activites that they do not directly controlel (e.g., farming). Yet reducing these emissions is extremely difficult, as they ususally come from activites inherently necessary to high-yield crop production (e.g., fertilisers).

Demand for FMCGs is also increasingly shifting towards "organic" and "sustainable" products, which can be hard to source in sufficient quantities and resonnable prices given farmers' difficulties to implement such practices in a profitable way.

Biochar can be a key lever to address both of the above stakes:

  • It helps reduce the use of fertilisers, with the potential to switch to 100% organic production;
  • It helps reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture, by both removing carbon from the atmosphere and reducing additional emissions due to fertiliser production and use.
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