Study shows improved agricultural management leads to healthier soil and increased carbon storage

A new study in the journal SOIL finds that, as farmers increase the amount of carbon stored in their soil through improved management practices, the biological activity in the soil is also stimulated, resulting in healthier, more productive soils.

“We framed this paper in terms of the soil-carbon dilemma,” said lead author Jonathan Sanderman, an Associate Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “The traditional view is that we had to decide between sequestering or using organic matter. Results from a long-term agricultural trial show that you can have your carbon and eat it too.”

The agricultural sector has recently received significant attention for its potential to mitigate climate change through sequestering carbon in soils – some studies have estimated that by implementing best farming practices soils could sequester 400-1100 million tons of carbon annually. Sequestering carbon as organic matter also locks up nutrients, which may present a hidden cost.

“There was three times as much organic matter in the soil of the most productive crop rotation compared to that of the least productive crop rotation.” Importantly, the study found that the soil organic matter was also being decomposed three times as fast, indicating that there was no apparent tradeoff between sequestering and using organic matter for these management practices.

The ability to build soil carbon while also increasing nutrient provision could prompt a sharper focus on policies that promote effective soil carbon management.

This work also adds to the growing body of research demonstrating that important biological feedbacks are missing in most model representations of soil carbon cycling.

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WHRC is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration and economic development around the globe.