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Lal, R.1; Follett, R. F.2; Stewart, B. A.3; Kimble, J. M.4

doi: 10.1097/ss.0b013e31815cc498
Technical Articles

World soils have been a source of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the dawn of settled agriculture, which began about 10 millennia ago. Most agricultural soils have lost 30% to 75% of their antecedent soil organic carbon (SOC) pool or 30 to 40 t C ha−1. The magnitude of loss is often more in soils prone to accelerated erosion and other degradative processes. On a global scale, CO2-C emissions since 1850 are estimated at 270 ± 30 giga ton (billion ton or Gt) from fossil fuel combustion compared with 78 ± 12 Gt from soils. Consequently, the SOC pool in agricultural soils is much lower than their potential capacity. Furthermore, depletion of the SOC pool also leads to degradation in soil quality and declining agronomic/biomass productivity. Therefore, conversion to restorative land uses (e.g., afforestation, improved pastures) and adoption of recommended management practices (RMP) can enhance SOC and improve soil quality. Important RMP for enhancing SOC include conservation tillage, mulch farming, cover crops, integrated nutrient management including use of manure and compost, and agroforestry. Restoration of degraded/desertified soils and ecosystems is an important strategy. The rate of SOC sequestration, ranging from 100 to 1000 kg ha−1 year−1, depends on climate, soil type, and site-specific management. Total potential of SOC sequestration in the United States of 144 to 432 Mt year−1 (288 Mt year−1) comprises 45 to 98 Mt in cropland, 13 to 70 Mt in grazing land, and 25 to 102 Mt in forestland. The global potential of SOC sequestration is estimated at 0.6 to 1.2 Gt C year−1, comprising 0.4 to 0.8 Gt C year−1 through adoption of RMP on cropland (1350 Mha), and 0.01 to 0.03 Gt C year−1 on irrigated soils (275 Mha), and 0.01 to 0.3 Gt C year−1 through improvements of rangelands and grasslands (3700 Mha). In addition, there is a large potential of C sequestration in biomass in forest plantations, short rotation woody perennials, and so on. The attendant improvement in soil quality with increase in SOC pool size has a strong positive impact on agronomic productivity and world food security. An increase in the SOC pool within the root zone by 1 t C ha−1 year−1 can enhance food production in developing countries by 30 to 50 Mt year−1 including 24 to 40 Mt year−1 of cereal and legumes, and 6 to 10 Mt year−1 of roots and tubers. Despite the enormous challenge of SOC sequestration, especially in regions of warm and arid climates and predominantly resource-poor farmers, it is a truly a win-win strategy. While improving ecosystem services and ensuring sustainable use of soil resources, SOC sequestration also mitigates global warming by offsetting fossil fuel emissions and improving water quality by reducing nonpoint source pollution.

1Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. Dr. Lal is corresponding author. E-mail:

2Natural Resources Research Center, USDA-ARS, Fort Collins, CO.

3Dryland Agriculture Institute, West Texas A&M University, Canyon, TX.

4USDA-NRCS, Lincoln, NE.

Received Apr. 20, 2007; accepted Aug. 14, 2007.

© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.