Biochar for Sustainable Soils (B4SS)


Starfish is leading a global collaboration focused on the role of biochar in sustainable soils. Land degradation affects nearly one-quarter of land globally, and alarmingly the problem is still worsening at a time when both population and agricultural demands are rapidly rising.

The purpose of Biochar for Sustainable Soils (B4SS) is to share knowledge and build capacity regarding the use of innovative biochar-based organic amendments for sustainable soils and land management. In this way the project aims to support rural livelihoods for small landholders, enhance productivity, improve the capture and efficient use of nutrients, address declining soil fertility, contribute to watershed management and strengthen resilience to climate change.

Funding of USD2m has been secured from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) for this purpose. The project will leverage an additional USD1¼m of value through collaboration with existing biochar projects from six countries. These projects span a range of different soils, climates and cultures with the core focus being:

  • Vietnam ~ rice straw biochar to improve soil fertility and sequester carbon
  • Ethiopia & Kenya ~ use of biochar to aid the return of nutrients to depleted cropping soils
  • Indonesia ~ working with an existing network of 1,750 small-scale women farmers with dryland cropping systems to improve soils affected by the 2004 tsunami
  • China ~ testing biochar for immobilising heavy metals
  • Peru ~ biochar to reduce deforestation and improve crop productivity.

B4SS will evaluate and collate the results from a range of formulations and application rates of nutrient-enhanced biochar and compare these with alternative soil management practices. A range of knowledge sharing, training and capacity building activities will be provided for small landholders, farming groups and resource managers as well as through the creation of new knowledge-sharing networks. Decision-making tools will be created such as recommended practices and guidelines for the most effective application rates and formulations (e.g. mix with other organic and mineral amendments) to achieve agronomic benefits.

Field Trials _ China

Biochar field trials in China, led by Project Partner Nanjing Agricultural University


Soil fertility is fundamental to improving food security and reducing poverty, however land degradation affects about 24% of all land area globally and the problem is growing ~ with 24Bn tons of fertile soil and 12m hectares of productive land being lost each year. Some1.5 billion people live on degraded lands and the world’s population is growing. Additionally, there are increasing stresses associated with climate change such as rainfall variability and drought extremes.

The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation has found that farmers will need to grow as much food in the next 50 years as has been produced in total over the last 10,000 years.

Sustainable land management practices are key to addressing the decline in productivity and restoring the fertility of degraded land ~ building the chemical and physical and biological health of the soil. Currently a large proportion of the world’s nutrient resources are squandered, used inefficiently and are not recycled.

It is in this context that biochar has been identified as having a potential role to play in simultaneously addressing the decline in land productivity, contamination of soils with heavy metals and the pollution caused by injudicious disposal of organic residues.

B4SS is positioned at the forefront of scientific inquiry into biochar. While formal biochar research is in its infancy there is considerable traditional knowledge about the use of charcoal in various applications to enhance soil productivity.

The intentional production of Biochar, in environmentally-sound engineered facilities and for use as a soil amendment, is a novel concept that has only been rigorously investigated in the last decade. Similarly, while research is producing evidence that Biochar can be effective in enhancing productivity, the use of Biochar has not been widely adopted, due to limited awareness of its effects.

Scientific studies are increasing our understanding of the properties of Biochar, however most field-scale Biochar trials have only begun in the last five years.

Current Priorities

The current priorities for the project are focused on establishing foundations for work which will be carried out through to late 2018. This foundational work includes:

  • Baseline surveys in all six countries looking at knowledge of biochar and existing soil management practices
  • Development of scientifically rigorous project plans for all six countries
  • Negotiation of partnership agreements

A comprehensive communication platform is to be established once the above priorities are in place.

Biochar fertilised crop _ High ResPartners

Starfish’s Role

Starfish role is to ensure the integrity of delivery of the project as a whole, particularly the legal and financial responsibilities. Starfish’s Executive Director and the B4SS Project Director are central to the overall governance, coordination, performance, management and delivery of the project with the various partners.

Starfish is supported in this role by a Scientific Panel ~ with members Professors Annette Cowie (Chair), Stephen Joseph, Johannes Lehmann and Associate Professor Lukas Van Zwieten ~ as well as a Steering Committee involving the six country partners.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” Wendell Berry

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