From Agricultural Waste to Sustainable Land Management

Environmental challenges are slamming the Middle East as environmental security deteriorates.  Land degradation, deforestation and food security are part of the concern.  Many solutions have been proposed but so far very few have been implemented.  New research is currently been conducted in these fields.

Biochar experiments in YotvataBiochar experiments in Yotvata
Photo: Shmuel Willner
The Dead Sea and Arava Science Center operates in the arid Arava Valley of Israel, which is under the jurisdiction of the regional councils of Megilot, Tamar, Central Arava and Hevel Eilot.  The center conducts a vast amount of applied research in multiple fields, such as climate change, infrastructure, geology and water.  Some of the Science Center projects have been funded by the KKL-JNF, as well as by the JCA (Jewish Colonization Association) and other agencies.   The research facilities are located in Kibbutz Ein Gedi, Kibbutz Hazeva, Kibbutz Yotvata and Kibbutz Ketura, where I had a chance to learn more about the ongoing research.  Geographer Dr. Ilan Stavi works for the Science Center where one of his projects is to study biochar as additive for soil enrichment.
Biochar is charcoal made out of organic material, as opposed to geologic coal, which is excavated from underground mines.  The idea of biochar derives from ancient times, and can be traced back thousands of years.  The concept was practiced long ago in the Amazon basin by the local indigenous people who used the so called ‘slush and burn’ method in their agricultural practices.  After burning the fields, the farmers used these confined plots to grow vegetables and grains.  According to Dr. Stavi, some of these ancient plots are still observable today because of the black soil, which is more fertile than the surrounding land.  Therefore the modern biochar industry is actually a new version of the ancient system.  “We are now learning from what people of the past did” notes Dr. Stavi.
Even though biochar has long history, the current research is relatively new – only 10-15 years old – while attracting considerable amount of attention.  Dr. Stavi highlights that over time, people have understood how biochar can maintain the soil quality and fertility, and furthermore, reduce the production costs of agriculture as it has high capacity for retention of water and nutrients in the uppermost soil layer, and at the same time, reduce the environmental footprint of agricultural production.  In addition, the biochar-amended soil can store carbon for the long-run, decreasing carbon emissions.  Also, there are multiple advantages that make the biochar production ideal from a waste management point of view.  The biological waste can be treated and used as a resource instead of burning or dumping it at the landfills.  As a result the biochar industry could be considered as ''win-win'', and is increasing all around the world.
In the Arava Valley, the concept is to use agricultural waste and then convert it to a resource.  According to Dr. Stavi, this is a relatively simple process and basically any organic material can be used.  Nevertheless, the agriculture in the Arava Valley is facing one major challenge.  The pumped groundwater is saline, which when used in irrigation salinizes the soil over time.  Therefore it is important to study how biochar affects the crops when the water is saline and the land salinized.
Dr. Stavi opines that biochar is one efficient solution among others in treating organic waste for producing bioenergy, while supporting sustainable food production.  As land degradation is increasing, and the concern for food security is exacerbating, the biochar industry, like other sustainable agriculture management practices will gain more interest amid the public.  He concludes “wise land management is crucial for dealing better with these environmental challenges”.