The role of biochar and biochar-compost in improving soil quality and crop performance: A review

Elsevier, Applied Soil Ecology, Volume 119, October 2017, Pages 156-170
Getachew Agegnehu, A.K.Srivastava, Michael I.Birda

Multiple nutrient deficiencies related to severe soil fertility depletion have emerged as the major constraint to the sustainability of agriculture on a global scale. Use of biochar and biochar-compost mixtures from different alternative organic sources have been proposed as an option for improving soil fertility, restoring degraded land, and mitigating the emissions of greenhouse gasses associated with agriculture. We review the findings of 634 publications in the last decade on biochar and biochar-compost mixtures as soil amendments in order to identify the potential gaps in our understanding of the role of these amendments in agriculture. We found that: i) the majority of published studies have been carried out in developed countries where soils are less impaired in terms of food production capacity than in many developing countries; ii) studies on biochar produced in small kilns are more common than biochars produced at commercial scale in developed countries, whereas biochars produced using traditional techniques are more commonly used than biochars produced in modern pyrolysis units in developing countries; iii) laboratory and greenhouse studies are more common than field studies; and iv) wood and municipal wastes were the major feedstock for the preparation of biochar compared to crop residues and manures. Although, biochar-compost application proved to be more generally effective in improving soil properties and crop yields (field crops and horticulture crops) than biochar alone, along with desired soil properties, could be a feasible alternative to remediate the degraded soils and improve their productivity potential in the long-term. Overall, a lack of long-term, well-designed field studies on the efficacy of biochar and biochar-compost mixtures on different soil types and agro-climatic zones are limiting our current understanding of biochar's potential to enhance crop production and mitigate climate change. We further suggest that greater collaboration between researchers, biochar producers, and policy makers is required to advance the research and uptake of this important technology at a global scale.