Reversing climate change and reducing world hunger seem to be rather lofty goals for a type of soil, but the authors of Terra Preta make strong arguments to turn to ancestral traditional knowledge as a way out of our current environmental and social problems. Whether you come at this book as a farmer/gardener, a sociologist, an historian, or an environmental activist, Terra Preta offers a little nugget of this “black gold” to help you make a step towards change.
Based on the recent “discovery” of ancient soils in Brazil’s Amazonian basin, Terra Preta (which simply translates as “black earth” in Portuguese) serves as an introductory call to action on changing the way we produce food and the way we deal with our waste. Drawing from both Indigenous peoples of South America and from Asian cultures, the authors offer a modern-day approach to making this soil.
Expectedly, the book begins with a quick refresher of BigAg, genetic engineering, and glyphosate providing the prerequisite context for why change from an industrial food system is so crucial. The authors then follow with the advantages of biochar, a key component of terra preta, which is essentially charcoal made from organic residues and produced by climate-neutral pyrolysis (low-oxygen environment). The end result is that much of the carbon in the plant that was once extracted from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide is converted to a highly stable form which can persist in the soil for thousands of years.
Terra Preta is not written for the agricultural academic looking for peer-reviewed data on the benefits of biochar, rather it makes anecdotal references to perceived benefits to soil health and food production both historically and with present-day home-based experiments. The authors take you on an adventure where you learn of a wide variety of traditional knowledge practices, such as Effective Microorganisms (EM) and Korean Natural Farming (KNF), and learn about the many cultures which have used charcoal and organic wastes to boost sustainable food production.
The authors also bring to light the historical wisdom of many cultures in the way they have addressed human waste. To me this was the highlight of the book, in that few within the organic movement choose to look at the necessity of closing the loop in our food systems. This concept is just one of many that the book Terra Preta weaves together to bring a more holistic approach to human society and food.
I do recommend this book as a balanced look at the small-scale potential of biochar as a beneficial soil amendment when used as a carrier of nutrients and I appreciate their caution in looking at biochar as a large-scale solution for carbon sequestration.
You can find this book and many more in the COG Library here.
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