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Increasing crop yields and root input make Canadian farmland a large carbon sink

Fan, J., McConkey, B.G., Liang, B.C., Angers, D.A., Janzen, H.H., Kröbel, R., Cerkowniak, D.D., Smith, W.N. (2019). Increasing crop yields and root input make Canadian farmland a large carbon sink, 336 49-58.


© 2018 Soil organic carbon (SOC) in agricultural lands is vital for global food production and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation. Accurate quantification of the change in SOC stocks at regional or national scales, which depends heavily on reliable spatiotemporal carbon (C) input data, remains a big challenge. Here we use the process-based RothC model to estimate change in SOC stocks across Canada for 1971 to 2015, based on calculated annual C flows between cropland and livestock sectors. Total C input to 0–20 cm soils from crops, manure, and biosolids in Canada increased by 81% from 1971 to 2015, which shifted Canadian agricultural lands from a CO2 source before 1990 (−1.1 Tg C yr−1) to a small sink during 1990–2005 (4.6 Tg C yr−1), and a larger sink thereafter (10.6 Tg C yr−1). The increasing trend of SOC stocks is mainly driven by the increases in crop yield; the enhanced C sink since 2005 reflects increasing C input largely driven by the increasing area and yield of canola. SOC sequestration showed a potential to offset ~34% or more of agricultural GHG emission since 1990. Increasing crop yields and adopting crop mixes that input proportionately more below-ground C, such as canola and oat, showed potential additional opportunity to sequester SOC, estimated at 1.7 Tg C yr−1 for 2016–2030 in Canada. This study illustrates that SOC sequestration is driven largely by plant C inputs, and shows that agronomic measures which augment C input through crop choices and yield-enhancing practices can profoundly benefit climate mitigation strategies.

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