Does no-till really reverse soil degradation?

posted in: Science | 13
Figure 1 from Olson, 2013 (click for larger image)

A recent paper (Olson, 2013) finds a number of long-term studies were wrong about no-till practices building soil organic matter and thus sequestering carbon. Kenneth Olson, soil scientist at the University of Illinois, says the problem is how the studies measured changes in soil organic carbon (SOC, which is about 50% of soil organic matter by weight). According to Olson, these long-term studies compared the soil carbon measurements of no-till (NT1 in figure 1) to moldboard plowing (MP). They concluded that carbon was sequestered in the soil under no-till but not in tillage systems. Figure 1 shows what Olson says these studies measured.

The problem pointed out by Olson is that this scenario compares everything to the carbon levels in the moldboard plow system (MP) which is assumed to be at a steady state. Olson states: “without… pre-treatment SOC data for the baseline treatment (MP), the SOC sequestration magnitude and rate…cannot be verified.” Olson’s point is that a snapshot measurement of SOC does not tell the whole story.

He argues convincingly that a baseline measurement of SOC is needed in all cases to determine both the sequestration rate and magnitude of both the no-till and moldboard plow systems. When this baseline measurement (A on the bottom axis) is included, as shown in the second figure below, the conclusions can be quite different.

Figure 2 from Olson, 2013 (click for larger image)

Starting before the treatments have been applied (point A at the bottom of the graph) the SOC levels are the same (in science-speak: the plot averages are not significantly different). The treatments are applied for 10 to 20 years, then SOC levels are measured again (point B on the graph). Olson argues that SOC levels will change in both treatments because SOC is rarely steady, even over long time periods.

He points out that SOC levels in the moldboard plow treatment (MP) will often be lower at time B than A, showing that carbon is lost in this system. Olson found in his own research, and suspects the same in other studies, that SOC levels in no-till (NT1) fields also decreased, but at slower rates than the MP soil. Therefore, carbon sequestration, as Olson defines it, “the process of transferring CO2 from the atmosphere into the soil of a land unit through unit plants [plants growing on that land unit], plant residues and other organic solids, which are stored or retained in the unit as part of the soil organic matter,” did not occur.

In other words, the no-till system is losing organic carbon, but at a slower rate than the moldboard plow system. Only if the carbon levels in the NT system increased between A and B (NT2 on the chart) could it be said that carbon was sequestered.

Olson’s conclusions, if they stand up under further scrutiny (it is a peer-reviewed paper) bring up several important points.

First, they highlight the fact that agricultural systems, even those that disturb the soil the least, are still degrading compared to native conditions, at least in the eastern half of the U.S. To this, I say: of course they are. The prairie did not allow for much export of food, so why is it the target for agriculture?  Let’s move beyond comparing agriculture to untouched prairie and aim for something that works for us. If no-till protects the soil from erosion, slows the loss of organic matter and still produces food, then it is the best option we have.

Second, at least where soil organic matter levels were high before agriculture was introduced, the ability of agriculture to sequester carbon to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions seems to be limited. This may affect the ability of agriculture to be a player in any future carbon sequestration market.

Finally, the situation in the arid West is different. Here, where native soils are very low in organic matter, adding irrigation and high yielding crops has the potential to increase soil organic matter. However, high value vegetable production (potatoes, onions, carrots), which at present require tillage and complex rotations, make it unlikely that continuous no-till will be widely adopted in these irrigated regions.

The scientific community should review Olson’s revised definition of carbon sequestration, and if they help us get a better view of reality, adopt them and adjust our course accordingly.


Olson K.R. (2013). Soil organic carbon sequestration, storage, retention and loss in U.S. croplands: Issues paper for protocol development, Geoderma, 195-196 201-206. DOI:

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Andrew McGuire is an Irrigated Cropping Systems Agronomist for Washington State University Extension. He works with farmers in the Columbia Basin of Central Washington in improving soils through cover crops and high residue farming systems.