The past will be key to future soil carbon solutions

A new study from Colorado State University’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology found that regenerative practices—including integrating crop and livestock systems—were successful as long-term carbon storage solutions.

Stacy Nick of Colorado State University, reports that the paper, Restoring particulate and mineral-associated organic carbon through regenerative agriculture, was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The study was led by ecology Ph.D. candidate Aaron Prairie, along with two co-authors: research scientist Alison King and M. Francesca Cotrufo, professor of soil and crop sciences and Prairie’s advisor.

Ms Nick writes that the regeneration of SOC in agricultural soils is one of the most realisable, nature-based solutions available to mitigate global warming and sustain food productivity for the future.

Over the past two years, Prairie looked at studies featuring experiments analysing the effects of regenerative agricultural practices compared to conventional or control practices and how these different practices increase SOC.

Rather than just looking at total soil organic carbon, he broke it up into particulate organic carbon (POC) and mineral-associated organic carbon (MAOC). “That’s important because they behave very differently in soil,” said Prairie, noting that POC cycles faster, creating different implications for management and carbon sequestration.

Cotrufo first demonstrated that two functionally different pools of carbon are formed through different processes and her former Ph.D. student, Katherine Rocci, showed they respond differently to global changes.

“This analysis is the first one to demonstrate the differential impact of regenerative practices on both the particulate organic matter and the mineral associated organic matter,” Cotrufo said. “There has been meta-analysis before, but on a small subset of management, and only looking at the total carbon. We found that if we study POC and MAOC separately, we can better inform management about what different conditions promote better outcomes.”

One of the most important findings Cotrufo noted is that regenerative practices have an overall positive impact on SOC pools. “There are a lot of nuances and variables across the studies that need further research,” she said. “But it’s a big call for agriculture to move towards a regenerative management model.”

Ms Nick says the study showed tremendous potential to greatly increase SOC pools through synergistic interactions between multiple practices, such as polyculture farming, cover cropping, integrated crop-livestock systems and even tillage.

This analysis opens the door to looking at regenerative agriculture in new ways, Prairie said. “It shows that there’s a lot that we don’t understand about specific mechanisms of carbon formation and that more research needs to be done into the combination of these different practices and their viability,” he said.

“This paper shows that regenerative integration and regenerative principles definitely work,” Cotrufo said. “Optimizing them for context is where we need to work next.”

Support a practical, investable and inclusive narrative for land use.

Sign-up to receive our newsletter

Newsletter Signup
Contribute for just £2.50 per week
Skip to content