Soil organic carbon (SOC) is declining globally due to intensification of agriculture. Reversing declines should reduce soil erosion, maintain yields, raise the soil’s atmospheric carbon sink, and improve habitat for biodiversity. Commercial fields were sampled in a diverse European Atlantic zone cropland to relate SOC status to cropping intensity and to define a realistic target for restoration. SOC (%C by mass) decreased from 4% to 2% as the proportion of high-intensity crops increased from zero to 55% (linear regression, F pr. < 0.001). In further sampling in and around high-intensity fields, mean SOC increased from 2.4% in cultivated soil to 3.3% in field margins and 4.8% in nearby uncultivated land (F pr. < 0.001). Three broad zones of SOC in close spatial proximity were then defined: 1) high-intensity arable from 1% to 3%, 2) mid-intensity arable and arable-grass from 3% to 5% and 3) uncultivated and semi-natural land from 5% upwards. C:N ratio was constrained around 12, unaffected by cropping intensity, but slightly lower in fields than in margins and uncultivated land (F pr. < 0.001). A feasible target SOC of just above 3% was defined for high-intensity sites. There should be no biophysical obstacle to raising SOC above 3% in the high-input sector. Results argue against treating cropland of this type as uniform: assessment and restoration should be implemented field by field.
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