We all know by now that organic agriculture leads to better insect and plant biodiversity thanks to things like the lack of harsh herbicides and pesticides, the use of crop rotation, and the many more holistic practices that allow organic crops to thrive. These practices as a whole help keep waterways, soils, and the very air we breathe healthy and cycling normally. It turns out there’s yet another way in which organic farming is healing the planet, though: soil carbon sequestration.
Simply put, soil carbon sequestration is exactly what it sounds like: Locking carbon into the soil, so it stays out of the atmosphere. All matter from living things contains carbon. In fact, in chemistry terms, the presence of carbon and hydrogen atoms together in a molecule is what makes it organic matter instead of inorganic matter. So, compounds like urea used for conventional crops and considered organic in chemical terms do still put a little bit of carbon into the soil… but not much, and certainly not a lot in comparison to standard organic fertilizers such as manure and compost.
Ultimately, across thousands of soil samples, organic soils not only contained 13% more organic matter in general, it contained a whopping 44% more long-term carbon storage in comparison to conventional systems – and that’s only the average, which means those numbers can be much higher. In fact, with best practices in soil management organic producers were able to increase their biological soil carbon by another 18%. The total amount of carbon sequestered varies depending on the methods, climate, and existing soil of the amended farmland, but even the most conservative estimates estimate a full 2.31 metric tons were sequestered by organic soil per year on average over a ten-year period. In a review done by the Rodale Institute, if even half of global available crop land was managed specifically for carbon sequestration, it would completely negate the 41 gigatons of CO2 and equivalent greenhouse gasses emitted each year. All that organic matter and carbon storage comes with a number of other benefits, such as improved mineral density in the soil, water retention, and reduced agricultural run-off. Together, that not only means healthier air and waterways, but also naturally improved crop health and yields.
To use urea as an example, it has two nitrogen atoms, one oxygen atom, and one lonely little carbon atom. This makes it extremely efficient at introducing nitrogen into the soil, but it has little else to offer. This is especially true of carbon, which is only 20% of the molecule by weight. In contrast, while plants are about 95% water on average, the rest of the plant is about 50% carbon by dry weight with other elements like hydrogen, nitrogen, and calcium making up the rest. Plants need nitrogen in large amounts to create the proteins that make up everything from enzymes to parts of their cell walls. However, without calcium, those same walls won’t be strong. Without magnesium, chlorophyll can’t properly photosynthesize. Without zinc, not only do plant metabolisms fail, but plants also become much more susceptible to disease. So, when you add compost or manure into soil, you’re not only adding much more carbon than with a conventional harsh nitrogen fertilizer, you’re also adding essential trace minerals back into the soil to help your plants thrive.
Locking that carbon into the soil also does a lot more than keep it out of the air, as well. When carbon depleted soils are amended with carbon rich fertilizers, it makes the soil retain water much better, which massively reduces both the demand for fresh water and the amount of agricultural runoff that harms local waterways – a win-win for native ecosystems that rely on those waterways being full and healthy to maintain biodiversity, especially in areas experiencing drought.
We at New Country Organics take pride in putting more into the soil than we take out – especially carbon. That’s why we support nearly 6,000 acres of organic crops and offer you a variety of organic soil amendments to help your plants thrive. We offer everything from Thorvin Foliar Kelp for trace mineral and growth support, to our own Living Soil which is packed with nutrients and soil amendments to help even the most delicate plants grow strong and thrive. If you’re curious about what your soil needs, check out your local state extension office or state university for soil testing. New Country Organics will be here to help you interpret the results and find the perfect fertilizer for your needs.
Ghabbour, E.A., Davies G., Misiewicz T., Alami R.A., Askounis E.M., Cuozzo N.P., Shade J. National comparison of the total and sequestered organic matter contents of conventional and organic farm soils. Advances in Agronomy, 146 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.agron.2017.07.003
Office of Sustainability and Climate. Forest Carbon FAQs. USDA, (2023).
Shade, J., Sciligo, A., Crystal-Ornelas, R., Tully, K. Maximizing Carbon Sequestration in Organic Systems. The Organic Center, (2021).
Tully, K.L., McAskill, C. Promoting soil health in organically managed systems: a review. Org. Agr. 10, 339–358 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13165-019-00275-1
Stein-Bachinger, K., Gottwald, F., Haub, A. et al. To what extent does organic farming promote species richness and abundance in temperate climates? A review. Org. Agr. 11, 1–12 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13165-020-00279-2
Cavigelli, M., Mirsky, S., Teasdale, J., Spargo, J., & Doran, J. Organic grain cropping systems to enhance ecosystem services. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 28(2), 145-159 (2013). doi:10.1017/S1742170512000439
Hepperly, P. Lotter, D. Ulsh, C. Z. Seidel, R. Reider, C. Compost, Manure and Synthetic Fertilizer Influences Crop Yields, Soil Properties, Nitrate Leaching and Crop Nutrient Content. Compost Science & Utilization. 17 (2009). 10.1080/1065657X.2009.10702410.
Rodale Institute. Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. Rodale Institute (2013). https://rodaleinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/rodale-white-paper.pdf