By Tacy Lambiase

In developing nations, personal health and well-being are not just dependent on what you cook to eat every day. It’s how you cook it that can have the most impact. And not just on human health, but on the environment as well.

A traditional outdoor cookstove
A traditional outdoor cookstove. Credit: McKay Savage/Flickr
Deforestation on the slopes of Mount Kenya, Embu District, Kenya
Deforestation on the slopes of Mount Kenya, Embu District, Kenya. Credit: Trees For the Future/Flickr

Roughly three billion people around the world rely on open-fire cookstoves to prepare their food. However, these traditional stoves are not properly ventilated, releasing smoke and ash into people’s homes and ultimately into the atmosphere. This repeated exposure to smoke often leads to serious health problems, including breathing difficulties, respiratory diseases and even lung cancer. According to a recent global health study, the fumes from these stoves kill 3.5 million people per year. This shocking number of deaths is greater than the yearly number of deaths caused by HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.

However, more energy-efficient and “clean” cookstoves have started to gain popularity in developing countries. Not only can these stoves improve human health through better smoke ventilation, but they can also positively affect forests, too.

Last month, an article in National Geographic focused on the positive effects that biochar cookstoves have had on communities in Kenya and Costa Rica, two places where American Forests Global ReLeaf has conducted reforestation projects. In a traditional open-fire cookstove, wood or charcoal is burned for fuel while carbon and soot is released into the air. But in a biochar cookstove, a dark residue (biochar) is produced when biomass is burned. The biochar can then be collected and used as a kind of fertilizer to improve the nutrient levels and overall quality of depleted soil. By replacing carbon emissions with biochar, these stoves can benefit the land and are less harmful to the atmosphere.

Biochar also reduces stress on local forests. Art Donnelly, the president of a biochar cookstove manufacturing company called SeaChar, told National Geographic that a biochar stove needs 40 percent less wood to operate than an open-fire stove. For many people, these cookstoves have greatly decreased the need to gather wood, reducing the amount of trees that need to be cut down for fuel. Although deforestation has already negatively impacted some countries like Kenya, biochar could be a new solution to this problem.

In Kenya, the demand for charcoal and hardwood has caused drastic changes to the landscape, eroding soil and decreasing biodiversity. But with new technology like biochar and a greater awareness about the benefits that cookstoves can have on human health and the environment, communities can take action and begin protecting the trees they depend on every day.