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European Journal of Soil Biology
Volume 104, 2021, 103314

Soil organic carbon is affected by organic amendments, conservation tillage, and cover cropping in organic farming systems: A meta-analysis

Robert Crystal-Ornelas, Resham Thapa, Katherine L.Tully

Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, 20742, United States.


Meta-analysis is often used to compare how soil health differs between organic and conventional farming systems. However, the burgeoning primary literature on organic farming now allows direct evaluation of the best management practices (BMPs) within organic farming systems on soil health improvements. Therefore, the main objective of this meta-analysis was to investigate the effect of BMPs, such as organic amendments, conservation tillage, and cover cropping, on soil health within organic farming systems. We focused on two principal soil health metrics: soil organic carbon (SOC) and microbial biomass carbon (MBC) concentrations. On average, adoption of BMPs increased depth-weighted SOC and MBC concentrations by 18 and 30 %, respectively, relative to organically-managed control groups. Among BMPs, organic amendments and conservation tillage practices showed net positive effect on soil health with 24 and 14 % increase in depth-weighted SOC concentrations, respectively. Although cover cropping did not have an overall influence on SOC concentrations, we found a temporal trend such that cover cropping significantly increased SOC concentrations after 5 years of its adoption. This indicates that the soil health benefits from BMPs accrue over time and highlights the need of long-term adoptability of BMPs to achieve agricultural sustainability. Future primary articles that focus on under-researched cropping practices in organic systems (e.g., crop rotation length and diversity, biochar addition) and the additive effects of multiple BMPs on soil health, will add to the synthesizable evidence base. Therefore, this meta-analysis confirms the soil health benefits of adopting BMPs within organic farming systems, identifies critical knowledge gaps, and provides directions for future organic farming research.

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