Low External Input Agriculture: the only road to a sustainable food supply – April 28th

Presented by Feasta, the Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network and Gorta

Thursday 28th April 2011:

Venue: The McLelland Room, The Central Hotel, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2.

Session 1: Organic farming’s role in improving food security and combatting climate change.

11.00 Registration

11.30 Gundula Azeez: How organic methods can lower greenhouse emissions and reduce reliance on fossil energy

12.30 Questions and discussion

13.00 – 1400 Lunch

Gundula Azeez has been working on agricultural policy for over sixteen years. After five years with the British National Farmers’ Union (NFU), including two years in its Brussels office, she spent a year at the European Commission working on agricultural trade and other issues. She then worked as the Soil Association’s Policy Manager for nine years. She is the author of the Soil Association’s reports “Soil Carbon and Organic Farming” (November 2009, available on the internet) and “The biodiversity impacts of organic farming”. She co-authored the Soil Association’s report on the impact of GM crops in North America, “Seeds of Doubt”, and was an adviser to the British government’s economic review of GM crops.

Session 2: Biochar’s role in increasing fertility and reducing fertiliser use

14.00 Witold Kwapinski: Biochar research in Ireland

14.20 David Friese-Greene: Using biochar on small farms in rural India.

15.00 Questions and discussion.

15.30 Session ends.

Dr. Witold Kwapinski is a Process and Chemical Engineering lecturer at the University of Limerick and a member of the Carbolea reseach group there. His research concentrates on processes such as pyrolysis, gasification and acid hydrolysis which convert plant material into fuels, chemicals and substances such as biochar. He designed a pilot-scale gasifier already in operation at the University.

David Friese-Greene In pursuit of his aim ‘education through communication’ David has made documentary films about research projects thoughout the world, including some for the British Antarctic Survey. He has a degree in ecology and animal behaviour,and in 2003 he began to work with an Indian NGO, SCAD (Social Change and Development) which is based in Tamil Nadu. For the past three years he has been heavily involved in a project to establish the extent to which biochar can enable farmers in the districts in which SCAD works to improve their soil’s fertility and lessen their need for artificial fertilisers. He has just returned from India after the installation of an Australian-made pyrolyser to produce biochar.

SCAD has strong Irish connnections because it has been receiving assistance from Gorta for the past fifteen years. In particular, Gorta has been funding horticultural development as an alternative to traditional rice and cereal farming since these give poor results in the low rainfall areas in which SCAD works.

Admission to a single session – 10 euro. Admission to both sessions, 15 euro.

If you will be attending the first session and would like lunch with the speaker at the hotel, please let Feasta know by sending an e-mail to info@feasta.org so that we reserve enough space in the restaurant. Soup and sandwiches will cost 8.50 euro. and if other options are available, we will tell you when you register at 11am.

Soil Fertility Project: Southern India

banana farmers can’t be wrong!

David Friese-Greene writes:

Cletus Babu founded SCAD – social change and development – 25 years ago. It now works with over 400,000 of the poorest people in the state, helping them to help themselves. In 2008,, Cletus heard about biochar from friends from Bristol who in turn knew about it because of their involvement in Feasta. He immediately began working on ways to use the idea.

Low rainfall, poor irrigation and government-subsidised inorganic fertiliser have taken their toll on soil quality in the areas in which SCAD works. Just when farmers needed to apply even more fertiliser the subsidy has been dramatically decreased. Costs have soared and the price of some basic foods, such as rice, has doubled.

If SCAD can produce the right kind of biochar in large enough quantities, adding urine and/or other locally available nutrients, including products from the biodigestion of wet waste, farmers could eventually become self sufficient in fertiliser.

Many economic, cultural and social barriers need to be addressed in order to persuade conservatively minded rural farmers to change the habits of a lifetime. SCAD is trusted by the people because it has frequently demonstrated that new ideas can create a better standard of living and greater profits.

A local banana farmer has been using waste ash for five years from a local rice mill. On analysis, the ash turned out to be charcoal. He puts about 2kgs around newly planted banana trees. His use of water and fertiliser has halved and his yield has doubled. His neighbours are now using the biochar with the same effect. Demand is increasing but the supply is not. Part of our work is to ensure a good supply of biochar as quickly as possible.

Initially, in 2008 we promoted the wide use of Anila cooking stoves (developed by Dr Ravikumar in Mysore) but the heat they produce does not match local cooking habits. We then began working with a team of engineers and biologists in the UK, Ireland (the University of Limerick’s Carbolea group) and Australia to develop a sustainable soil fertility programme, which included the development of a mobile pyrolysis unit capable of producing 250 kg of biochar a day and a biodigestor capable of handling one tonne of wet waste per day to produce methane for fuel and organic fertiliser to add to the biochar.
In March this year, a representative of the UK charity R H Southern Trust, which funded the building of a pyrolysis unit and biodigestor at the SCAD campus in India, opened the new facility. Scientifically run pot trials have begun on the use of the biochar produced by the unit and many other pot, plot and field trials are awaiting implementation.

This project aims to provide sustainable technologies to rural farmers in Tamil Nadu, Southern India, that will increase the quality and fertility of their soils using primarily agricultural and market waste.
If the processes designed and developed by SCAD can restore degraded land and increase crop yields we think the technology will spread naturally. The project is not commercial, being supported by charity money.

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.