Organic Carbon Sequestration and Ecosystem Service of Indian Tropical Soils

  • D. K. Pal


To meet the great challenge of feeding the global population in the coming centuries by keeping soil health intact, global scientists are busy to find suitable ways to maintain soil organic carbon (SOC) in general and in tropical soils in particular. Both SOC and soil inorganic carbon (SIC) are the most important components of soil as they determine ecosystem and agroecosystem functions by influencing soil fertility, soil water, environment, microbial activity and other soil parameters. SOC also has a role in the global carbon cycle and in the mitigation of atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs). SOC and SIC stock estimates of soils reported all over the world show their important roles for atmospheric CO2 sequestration. SOC stock (in the first 0–150 cm) of Indian soils is less (29.92 Pg) than that of SIC (33.98 Pg). Impoverishment in SOC in Indian soils is largely due to less accumulation of organic C (< 1%) in soils of the arid and semi-arid and dry subhumid climatic regions, which cover nearly 50 % of the total geographical area of India. But soils of humid tropical (HT) climates have >1% OC content. Factors responsible for organic carbon sequestration of Indian soils are identified to be (i) profuse vegetation under HT climate with adequate rainfall (>> 1000 mm) under cooler temperature for a period of a few months,(ii) presence of Ca-zeolites that ensure adequate soil moisture in both HT and semi-arid tropical (SAT) climate by preventing the total transformation of smectite to kaolinite, (iii) active inorganic part of soil as a substrate to build the SOC through clay-organic matter complex formation, and (iv) presence of smectites and vermiculites, which have the largest specific surface area and are capable of accumulating greater amounts of OC than the non-expanding minerals. Recent review on the impact of phyllosilicate mineralogy on SOC protection emphasizes that introducing a ‘phyllosilicate mineralogy’ parameter in SOC models appears premature. Alongside the phyllosilicates, clay fractions can also contain short range order minerals, metallic oxides and hydroxides and carbonates, which may have importance for SOC protection and their possible interaction with phyllosilicates. Major soil types of India contain a variety of clay minerals of expanding and non-expanding nature alongside interstratified or mixed layer ones. A revisit is necessary to highlight the nature and properties of crystalline expanding clay minerals and mixed clay minerals and also of associated non-crystalline ones that are likely to influence SOC sequestration in major soil orders. The ability of these types of minerals in SOC sequestration would enable soils for ecosystem services. Despite being a 0.7 nm mineral interstratified with hydroxy-interlayered smectite, HIS (kaolin), it shows a remarkable capacity to sequester more organic carbon (OC) than SAT Vertisols dominated by fairly well crystalline smectite. Research clearly points out the superior role of interstratified clay minerals such as kaolin than discrete smectite in OC sequestration. This unique example expands the basic knowledge on the role of kaolin in stabilization of SOC, which happens only under acidic pedochemical environment induced by profuse vegetation under HT climate. Therefore, both acidity and interstratified clay minerals appear to be more important factors of OC sequestration in HT soils. In addition, Ca-zeolite is an important factor in OC sequestration as it has high CEC and a large surface area and helped in forming kaolin by preventing complete transformation of smectite to kaolinite by maintaining relatively high base saturation level in acidic Vertisols, Mollisols and Alfisols but fails to enhance their clay CEC values beyond 50 cmol (p+) kg-1. The million years old Inceptisols, Alfisols, Mollisols and Ultisols of HT climate have considerable amount of SOC in the 0–30 cm depth that ranges from ~ 1% to 3.1%, which signifies a quasi-equilibrium value under natural forest. Long-term experiments (LTEs) in temperate humid region of UK indicated the SOC increase >7‰ year−1 and OC content in the 0–23 cm soil depth increased from ~1% to 2.14%, which is comparable to OC content of the HT soils of India and thus suggests that for HT soils, there is no immediate need to achieve the ‘4 per 1000’ goal. However, it may be necessary in SAT soils in view of high possibility of CO2 release from these soils under hostile SAT climatic conditions. In the Indian sub-continent, Andisols, Mollisols, Alfisols and Inceptisols of the HT climate under forest cover have sequestered maximum amount of OC, which may suggest that introduction of forestry by removing land from agricultural land uses may lead to large accumulations of SOC. Observations however indicate that even under natural forest in Indian SAT climate, red ferruginous Alfisols and Vertic Inceptisols over a century’s time could sequester high OC concentration of 1.78% and 0.81% in the 0–30 cm soil depth, respectively. But the conversion of agricultural lands to forestry has severe limitations if food security goals of the Indian sub-continent are to be met. Cropping systems involving crop rotation, agroforestry and mulching are better strategies for farmers in the tropic. Few studies on SAT ferruginous Alfisols and Vertisols indicate that horticultural system shows a better quasi-equilibrium value of OC of 0.81% and 0.75% against 0.68% and 0.50% under agriculture system in the first 30 cm soil depth, respectively. Economic analysis on SOC sequestration reported that in majority of LTEs, the NPK plus FYM (10t ha−1) treatment showed higher SOC and also higher net return than that under NPK treatment, suggesting that application of FYM with NPK is a cost-effective, win-win technology for the Indian farmers. Paradoxically, the SOC content (0–30 cm depth) of an LTE of 28 years on SAT Vertisols using sorghum-wheat cropping system with recommended doses of NPK fertilizers plus FYM (10t ha−1) shows a value of 0.73% only. On the other hand, small but significant enhancement of OC content under horticultural system as compared to agricultural land uses is observed, which suggests that horticulture is a better option for SOC sequestration if forestry is not feasible in SAT red ferruginous Alfisols and Vertisols. It was noticed that the agricultural management practices advocated through the national agricultural research system (NARS) for the last several decades did not cause any decline in SOC in the major crop growing zones of the country under SAT climate. The increase in OC in agricultural soils (maximum up to ≤ 1% in 0–30 cm depth) observed in SAT areas through NARS interventions appears enough to provide ecosystem services in growing self-sufficiency in food production and food stock since independence. In fact, such interventions since post-Green Revolution period helped in increased OC sequestration in all soil types without leading to increased emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to any alarming proportion. Among other ways to enhance the SOC stock of Indian SAT soils, conversion of soils with low productivity or that are fragile and prone to erosion, from agriculture to forest or grassland, may be a good strategy. Sodic soils are impoverished with OC but exhibit good potential to sequester OC when ameliorative management practices are implemented. Through the implementation of specific management practices for Typic Natrustalfs of IGP and Sodic Haplusterts of southern India, an increase in OC stock was observed for both soil types. Therefore, to include sodic soils as a potential option for C sequestration, additional financial support through incentives may be a viable option as soil C sequestration has proved to be the most cost-effective option as compared to geological sequestration. Further enhancement in SOC stock could be possible if the selected agricultural crops with more root volume are engineered by plant breeders. Greater release of carbonaceous acidic exudates from such crop roots would act as source of carbon. In addition, more soil acidity would also influence OC sequestration by breaking the crystalline clay structure to form short range order (SRO) minerals and hydroxy-interlayered clay minerals, which have high carbon sequestering potential.


Soil organic carbon Factors of SOC sequestration SOC quasi-equilibrium in humid tropical soils Hydroxy-interlayered clay minerals and short range order minerals in SOC sequestration Options to enhance SOC in SAT soils 


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Authors and Affiliations

  • D. K. Pal
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of Soil Resource StudiesICAR-NBSS&LUPNagpurIndia

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