Could ancient farming methods save the climate?

Researchers from the Justus-Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, hope to unveil the secrets of fertile Amazon soils.

Biochar research grounds in Linden-Leihgestern

Biochar research grounds in Linden-Leihgestern

During an expedition to the Amazon rainforest, plant ecologist Prof. Dr. Christof Müller of the Justus-Liebig-University (JLU) will investigate how ancient farming methods lead to lasting storage of carbon dioxide in the ground, which could have an impact on saving the climate. Prof. Müller has been invited by the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture to research the so called Terra preta, a deep black soil type found in the Amazon Basin. These soils, having been influenced by mankind and deposits of charcoal, dung and compost hundreds of years ago, became incredibly fertile and remain so today – in stark contrast to the rather nutrient-poor soils of the rainforest.

“The current work is directly related to our main focus, which is to investigate the consequences of the effects of climate change on native ecosystems,” says Prof. Müller of the Institute for Plant Ecology at JLU. He is head of the LOEWE-excellence programme FACE2FACE, which examines the effects of increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations, as is predicted for central Europe around mid-century. An important component of this research are long-term studies examining agricultural management measures which involve carbon storage and sustainable economic management. Since 2010, JLU researchers have been experimenting with biochar, whereby charcoal and manure are combined using a specific methodology.

“The so-called biochar-application is currently the most effective method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in a long-lasting form in soil. Hence, it is an important mosaic stone in the fight against climate change,” emphasises Müller. Prof. Dr. Claudia Kammann from the Hochschule Geisenhaim agrees. She was part of the team that developed the method.

Although there is no Terra preta to be found in Central European latitudes, there are charcoal-enriched soils: more than 2000 years ago, the Celts operated plants for producing charcoal. Especially in the German Siegerland region, areas have been discovered that many years ago certainly produced charcoal, which in turn enriched the soil. According to Müller, these soils are comparable to Terra preta soils, but in contrast to the Amazon region, were not utilised agriculturally.

Prof. Müller plans to use the methods developed at JLU in order to examine nutrient cycling in ecosystems that have over centuries slowly acquired the organic substance of Terra preta, the microbial turnover, as well as the release of nutrients available to plants.

Studying both soil types will make it possible to examine the long-term effect of carbon on our soils, which has not been possible using only the current, short-term field studies from Giessen. “Terra preta is an excellent example of how even our ancient forefathers can help us find solutions to current problems,” says Müller.

Photo credit: Jochen Senkbeil

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