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Friday, November 21, 2014

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Soil erosion, pesticides, chemical fertilizers; while modern agriculture produces a lot of food, it also causes a lot of damage to the environment. Maybe we can take a step forward from current methods by taking a look back...at an ancient agricultural technique from the Amazon rainforest.

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An ancient agricultural technique from the Amazon rainforest is attracting the interest of scientists in the US and elsewhere for its ability to restore soil fertility, sequester carbon and provide carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative energy. The technique, being explored by scientists at Cornell University, is called Terra Preta. It involves slowly burning some of the unwanted plant matter in an area and adding the charred remains, termed "biochar", back into the soil.

The investigations of Johannes Lehmann and his team at Cornell have revealed some interesting characteristics of Terra Preta soils. "The knowledge that we can gain from studying the Amazonian dark earths...not only teaches us how to restore degraded soils, triple crop yields and support a wide array of crops in regions with agriculturally poor soils, but can also lead to technologies to sequester carbon in soil and prevent critical changes in world climate," he explained.

The researchers have discovered that the black soil resulting from biochar application not only fixes up to 50 percent of the carbon that was present in the plant matter but also contains significantly higher levels of minerals and nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, sulphur and organic matter. The soil does not get depleted, as other soils do, after repeated use, and boasts significantly higher fertility levels - so much so that some areas of the Amazon rainforest can attribute their fertility and biodiversity to the intervention of early indigenous peoples using this approach.

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