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Integrated biochar solutions can achieve carbon-neutral staple crop production

This article has been updated


Agricultural food production is a main driver of global greenhouse gas emissions, with unclear pathways towards carbon neutrality. Here, through a comprehensive life-cycle assessment using data from China, we show that an integrated biomass pyrolysis and electricity generation system coupled with commonly applied methane and nitrogen mitigation measures can help reduce staple crops’ life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from the current 666.5 to −37.9 Tg CO2-equivalent yr−1. Emission reductions would be achieved primarily through carbon sequestration from biochar application to the soil, and fossil fuel displacement by bio-energy produced from pyrolysis. We estimate that this integrated system can increase crop yield by 8.3%, decrease reactive nitrogen losses by 25.5%, lower air pollutant emissions by 125–2,483 Gg yr−1 and enhance net environmental and economic benefits by 36.2%. These results indicate that integrated biochar solutions could contribute to China’s 2060 carbon neutrality objective while enhancing food security and environmental sustainability.

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Fig. 1: GHG emissions from staple food production in China.
Fig. 2: Effects of various management scenarios on staple crop yield, environmental impact and GHG emissions in China.
Fig. 3: Effects of biochar and straw application on SOC change rates for staple food production in China.
Fig. 4: Net GHG emissions from staple food production in China under different mitigation scenarios.
Fig. 5: Impacts of different mitigation scenarios on food security and environmental sustainability.
Fig. 6: Overall effects of IPEG–CH4–N on mitigating GHG emissions from staple food production in China.

Data availability

The meta-analysis dataset generated during this study is available in Supplementary Data 1. The source data underlying Figs. 15 are available in the online version. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

This study does not generate codes.

Change history

  • 24 February 2023

    In the version of this article originally published, an earlier version of the paper, before final edits were implemented, was mistakenly used. The updated sections appear at the end of Figure 2 legend (with new text starting “Each scenario is contingent upon the previous one…”), in the second paragraph of the “IPEG–CH4–N” subsection (new text starting “We found that the proportions…”), in one instance each in the Methods and main text, where an earlier typo (“74%”) was corrected in the statement that “By contrast, IPEG–CH4–N requires only 72% of the total crop residue for biochar production…”, while the Supplementary Information presented was an earlier version The updates are made in the HTML and PDF versions of the article.


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This work was financially supported by the Helmholtz-OCPC (Office of China Postdoc Council) Postdoc Program and Humboldt Postdoctoral Reserch Fellowship, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grants 42061124001, 72174197, 72025401, 71974108, 71690244 and 41961124004) and the Tsinghua University-Inditex Sustainable Development Fund. We would like to thank Y. Zhao for providing the SOC data.

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Authors and Affiliations



M.Z., L.X., X.L., X.Y. designed the research. L.X. and L.C. performed the data extraction and analysis. L.X. wrote the first draft of the manuscript, with all authors contributing to the revisions.

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Correspondence to Minghao Zhuang, Xi Lu or Xiaoyuan Yan.

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Nature Food thanks Baojing Gu, Annette Cowie and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Notes 1–6, Supplementary Tables 1–20 and Supplementary Figs. 1–9.

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Supplementary Data 1

Effects of straw and biochar application on food production and environmental sustainability.

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Xia, L., Cao, L., Yang, Y. et al. Integrated biochar solutions can achieve carbon-neutral staple crop production. Nat Food 4, 236–246 (2023).

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