Science in Society Archive

Science in Society #44 - Letters to the Editor

Science in Society 44

Beware the one-sided biochar

Your Beware the Biochar Initiative (SiS 44) seems one-sided. Biofuels took off as a way to remove dumped subsidised US and EU crops from the global market, and would never have happened without huge taxpayer subsidies. But biochar is different. While biofuels are burned and returned to the atmosphere, biochar is not burned. The only truly economic biochar is produced by small farmers and doesn’t seek to derive bio-oils or bio-gas for energy; that only pays with huge subsidies.

The increased yields and reduced nitrate use from biochar-enriched soils contributes to CO2 removal from the atmosphere and reduced nitrous oxide emissions.

You have very selectively quoted the Biofuelswatch research analysis which only focuses on the few cases where biochar has not shown significant benefits – there is a book called ‘Biochar for Environmental Management’ that covers all the science to date. Research is going on all over the world to establish how biochar performs in different soils under different climate conditions. There is no ‘one size fits all’ with anything agricultural. For example, biochar from coffee or cacao shading thinnings and prunings from vines, olives, tea, apples, nuts, and other agricultural tree crops extracts value from woody biomass that are now either burned in the open or left to rot. Furthermore, 130 years is a long time to get a small amount of oxidisation.

If biochar is subsidised in the way the biofuels have been, in flagrant disregard of the carbon economics of biofuels production, then your predictions of disaster will be justified. But we believe that Nicholas Stern’s call for ‘equitable and universal’ carbon accounting at Copenhagen will ensure that biochar is treated equally with other forms of carbon sequestration and the horrendous distortions caused by subsidising biofuels won’t happen again. Right now if you burn biochar you get a subsidy equal to double its energy value as electricity, if you use it as a soil amendment you get nothing. A more supportive approach from responsible scientists in favour of blocking subsidies for biomass-derived fuels would do a lot more good.

Craig Sams, Chair of Soil Association, Bristol, UK

I am glad you pointed out the problems associated with the big Biochar Initiative (Beware the Biochar Initiative, SiS 44). I am against all industrial scales - be it agricultural, technical or science. Also, I am opposed to every kind of colonialism and biofuels.

I am especially interested in making fertile soils out of barren ones and keeping them fertile for a long time. I thought about researching compost systems that include manure and charcoal. The charcoal may then retain the nutrients (from the manure) and give home to mycorrhiza, apart from probably other things that it can do. By composting organic material grown in my fields, I also release a lot of oxidized carbon into the air. So I could as well make charcoal out of some of it without doing too much harm. Is that right?

Birgit Seyr, Innsbruck, Austria

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho replies

I don't disagree with much of what Craig Sam says. The problem is the scale at which the International Biochar Initative wants to do it, to capture huge Clean Development subsidies while offering a false and dangerous solution. I reviewed a lot of research done by the proponents, and very little from Biofuelwatch, when it comes to science. I haven't even quoted all the negative results, concentrating on those done by the chief proponents themselves. Where I do agree withBiofuelWatch is regarding the terrible social consequences of land grab for bioenergy crops, whether for biofuels or biochar; and the industrial processes are designed to blur that distinction. Biochar as practiced by small farmers, and indeed by the Amazonian Indians that created terra preta, may be sustainable and beneficial, depending on the local environmental and soil conditions. In arid conditions, for example, biochar generated naturally simply gets burnt up before they have a chance to decay.

You are right to criticise the system that rewards biofuels with subsidies. That’s why those subsidies should be removed; it is not a reason for subsidising biochar. In any case, experience teaches us that it is only the big producers that will capture the subsidies, not family farmers. The carbon trading scheme simply transfers the burden of reducing CO2 emissions from the developed to developing countries, and is best abolished. Instead, developed nations should offer genuine financial and technological help to developing countries that are bearing the brunt of climate change (see our Green Energies report, ISIS publication).

Good, independent research on the subject is to be welcomed. The experiment suggested by Bergit Seyr is excellent. Neither biofuel nor biochar is harmful on a small local sustainable scale for local communities. But we should never allow big plantations on illusory ‘spare land’.

Solar panel toxic cadmium alert

Your Solar Power Getting Cleaner Fast(SiS 39) misses a very serious safety issue regarding cadmium. While a few panels do not pose much danger, many CdTe panel manufacturers are proposing to cover thousands of acres with thesetoxic carcinogen Cd heavy metal containing panels.This includes the 550MW CdTe potential hazmat (short for hazardous material) fields on top of San Andreas Fault line (;  additional 550MW to be installed in 2 different location in south California (, and a total of some 19GW of CdTe panels, containing over 4.4 million lbs toxic carcinogen heavy metal cadmium, to be spread over approx. 220 000 acres in the US alone during the next several years (

The EU and China have banned the commercial use of Cd and Cd compounds, while US National Toxicology Project is looking into it. So it would make sense to haltthe propagation of this toxic metal until we are able to estimate its behaviour under 25-30 years of continuous operation in the sun. There are no plans to do that presently, and my attempts to raise the awareness of US regulatory agencies have not been successful.

Anco Blazev, Ch.E., Bristol, UK

Nuclear decommissioning cost includes waste management

The views expressed in UK’S Lackluster Low Carbon Transition Plan (SiS 44) concerning the decommissioning of legacy nuclear plants in the UK to do not stand up to any detailed scrutiny. The authors state that the costs of decommissioning are "ballooning". However, if they had read the NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) Strategy published in April 2006 and available on the NDA website, they would have seen that the NDA always predicted a bell curve in terms of clean-up costs in that as the organisation got a better understanding of what was there then costs would rise, but then begin to fall as efficiencies of scale and the application of proper project management and technological innovation are brought to bear. A reading of the NDA's Annual Report published in July 2009 would show only a 1 percent increase in lifetime decommissioning costs over the year showing that the bell curve theory is working out in practice. Secondly, the article alleges that reprocessing plants at Sellafield are not operational; this is simply not true. These plants have contributed in excess of £1 billion over the past four years that has been used to offset the cost of decommissioning, something else ignored by the authors in their assertion.

Bill Hamilton, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, London, UK

Prof. Peter Saunders replies

Our concern about the escalating costs of clean up and decommissioning is shared by, among others, the UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in their report of June 2008. They wrote that the undiscounted cost had risen to £61 billion by 2007 and was likely to rise even further. They were right: it has now reached at least £73 billion. Meanwhile the problems at the Thorp reprocessing plant have left the UK with growing piles of our own as well as other people’s nuclear wastes.

Community cooker good but not perfect

Sure the The Community Cooker Turns Rags to Riches project (SiS 44) is a good one. But it has a dark side, too. Incineration of organic matter and plastics generates many health problems through air pollution with dioxins, particulate matter, toxic metals, etc.

Flavio Lewgoy, Brazilia, Brazil

Burning this garbage for energy is a much better option than leaving it to rot on the streets. When it comes to emissions such as dioxins and PAHs that people are concerned about, a steady, hot fire in an enclosed unit with a draft (supplied by a chimney) will yield fewer of these pollutants than hundreds of wood fires smouldering all day long even if waste materials are being used as fuel. They aren't burning vinyl siding from suburban house remodels, last year's cell phone fashion trend, crusty BFR-treated couches, CCA lumber, mercury switches, NiCd batteries, and other items found in developed world garbage.

Corey Johnson, Wilkes-Barre, PA, USA

Scientists’ rights & responsibilities

Your editorial Scientists Must be Held Responsible and Protected by Law (SiS 43) is a very timely and vital article that advances our understanding of how big companies control science and also illustrates with a few cases how individuals can take them to task. Most importantly, it raises vital questions on corporate social and legal responsibility and the role and responsibility of leading scientists.The article is posted on International Human Rights Observer.

Arun Srivastava, New Delhi, India

Scientists should also be recognized for activism through science and rewarded for public demonstration. Should these companies be allowed to abuse citizens rights of those who express concern over safety issues? Recently I read an article about a multinational company going green. It struck me funny as this was the company that had threatened to arrest me and my daughter for leafleting against rBST (genetically engineered bovine growth hormone) in 2000. We were on public property, and so not trespassing. Nine years later, when their business is flailing, they are using the green marketing cover. I have been a member of ISIS for as many years and my login was green1 long before it became a marketing device.

To all who seek the truth throughout their careers, especially those who are ostracized, you are unique and credible. No one can take that from you. We know your sacrifice and we thank you for your truth!

Susan Rigali, Los Angeles, California, USA

Medicine in a new key also very old

Your Medicine in a New Key is entirely consistent with the eastern paradigm on human physiology (Chinese, Indian and Thai) that sees lines of energy running through our bodies in the manner you describe. These Prana lines connect the internal organs, which is why imbalance in one organ can affect the function of another organ. The lines have names and were discovered many thousands of years ago, but no one ever made use of these energy lines except for massage as in Thai traditional massage. There is a Thai doctor who is now 73 years old, and has formulated over 30 herbal concoctions (consisting of 30 – 90 herbs) for all diseases incurable by domo medicine. I witnessed his cure on terminal cancers, systemic lupus erythematosis, rheumatism, multiple sclerosis, baldness (my nephew), chronic tonsillitis (my daughter), muscle atrophy, sleep apnea (myself), allergy, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, bipolar disorder etc. Anyone who has problems please contact me ( See if your problem can be solved by this Thai doctor working in the manner described by Dr. Ho.

Omboon Luanratana Ph.D., Department of Pharmacognosy (dealing with medicinal plants and traditional medicine), Faculty of Pharmacy, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand

Article first published 02/12/09

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a duck?

There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Dr.IS Perlingieri Comment left 11th December 2009 21:09:15
10 December 2009 This is an important e-note for Dr. Mae-Wan Ho. Dear Dr. Ho: F. William Engdahl has just written an online article that should get wide coverage. I passed on your article and open letter on the dangers of the vaccines earlier this summer (I sent it to and they included it in their archival flu pages at: Engdahl's aticle: Thank you for your tremendous GMO work! Dr. Perlingieri author "The Uterine Crisis" [critically acclaimed in "The Ecologist"]

Flavio Lewgoy, Porto Alegre, Brazil Comment left 3rd December 2009 05:05:03
Regarding Mr.Corey Johnson's comment on burning garbage for fuel. Replacing the ancient practice of burning in the open all kinds of garbage with burning it - even selected garbage - in furnaces is also bad, since lethal emmissions are not eliminated. Solutions must include reducing substancially the production of garbage and/or recycling all kinds of waste.