“It was a very ingenious way of getting biochar into the soil without capital expenditure,” says Kathy Dawson, an executive officer at Warren Catchment Council, a not-for-profit organisation that assists with natural resource management in the south-west region of Western Australia.
Biochar is typically a very stable form of carbon, unlike biomass that is left to rot at the surface, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Once biochar is buried in the ground, it can stay put for several hundred years. The presence of biochar is also thought to stabilise organic carbon in the soil, says Bhatta, resulting in higher carbon sequestration. The idea of burying this coal-like substance in the ground has been proposed as a promising carbon sink to address climate change, but the quantities required to see a significant effect would have to be vast.
But, given the interest in the substance’s other environmental benefits, will other farmers take up the biochar and dung beetle system? There has been hesitancy because of questions of how cost-effective it is for farmers. The benefits to soil health, too, depend on the type of biochar used. Pow believes that legislation and added incentives such as financial credits would be needed to encourage broader uptake of this type of carbon farming. He remains hopeful that the system he has developed will encourage more farmers to take it up in time.
While cattle farming has a vast environmental impact, it is also a livelihood for an estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide. The unlikely combination of biochar and dung beetles could be one way that farmers can reduce their contribution to the climate crisis, while reaping the benefits of healthier soil.
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