“I haven’t washed my hair since 1965,” says Craig Sams, who, when we met at the August 2012 Biochar Conference at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, sported a clean-looking, thick shock of Euro-style, longish white hair. The reason is that there’s a healthy ecology of microbes up there that he doesn’t want to scrub off by using soap. And so a rinse with warm water and olive oil is all he uses.
Protecting microbes is what he does these days as founder of Carbon Gold Ltd., a biochar company in Bristol, England. Biochar is plant matter, wood mostly, roasted until it’s black and crumbly. It’s not burnt to ash but is a form of charcoal that has some of the same characteristics as humus, plus one very important other function: When it’s buried in the soil, it stores carbon so it doesn’t enter the air as carbon dioxide and contribute to global warming. We reported on biochar in our December 2010/January 2011 issue. But let Sams himself describe what’s happened with biochar since then:
You founded Whole Earth Foods, Europe’s first organic food brand, then Green & Black’s chocolate company, now Carbon Gold and biochar. What led you on this odd path?
I was born into a Nebraska farm family, then lived in Europe as a schoolboy. During my college years at the University of Pennsylvania, I trekked across the Middle East and Asia, got sick, and then discovered the benefits of healthy diet, which led me into macrobiotics. After graduation, I moved to London, eventually opening restaurants and selling food with my brother Gregory. That’s how Whole Earth Foods came about.
Years later, looking for organic peanuts, I came across organic chocolate growers in Africa and started Green & Black’s with my wife Jojo. Later, I traveled to Belize along with John Moussouris, a mathematician and Silicon Valley inventor. He wanted to know more about biochar. We took two Mayan cacao farmers to Cornell to learn how to make and use it. Cacao trees typically take 6 or 7 years to produce pods, but grown in soil amended with biochar, they produced pods in 4 years.
Was that how you became interested in biochar?
My interest in organics led me to ultimately become chairman of the Soil Association (the British organic agriculture organization). That introduced me to the Rodale Institute’s 30-year study of the carbon cycle in organic farming and the discovery that organic farming is essentially carbon-neutral or carbon-reductive. When you price in the cost of carbon emissions, organic food is cheaper for people to buy than conventional.
Isn’t biochar just something else for gardeners and farmers to buy? Doesn’t compost do the same thing?
If you add 18 to 20 tons of compost per hectare (2.2 acres) of land, only 1 ton of the carbon in the compost stays in the soil. As the compost decays into humus, the rest goes off into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. With biochar, 10 to 20 percent of the carbon goes off as carbon dioxide after a decade or so but the rest is sequestered in the soil for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Not only that, but nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It’s emitted by nitrogenous fertilizers, including the anhydrous ammonia that’s widely used in conventional farming. If biochar is in the soil, it reduces nitrous oxide emissions by up to 50 percent, due to the proliferation of soil biota that sequesters it. So farmers can halve their nitrate use and get the same results.