Research Article: Assessment of the Soil Organic Carbon Sink in a Project for the Conversion of Farmland to Forestland: A Case Study in Zichang County, Shaanxi, China

Date Published: April 15, 2014

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Lan Mu, Yinli Liang, Ruilian Han, Wen-Xiong Lin.


The conversion of farmland to forestland not only changes the ecological environment but also enriches the soil with organic matter and affects the global carbon cycle. This paper reviews the influence of land use changes on the soil organic carbon sink to determine whether the Chinese “Grain-for-Green” (conversion of farmland to forestland) project increased the rate of SOC content during its implementation between 1999 and 2010 in the hilly and gully areas of the Loess Plateau in north-central China. The carbon sink was quantified, and the effects of the main species were assessed. The carbon sink increased from 2.26×106 kg in 1999 to 8.32×106 kg in 2010 with the sustainable growth of the converted areas. The black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia L.) and alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) soil increased SOC content in the top soil (0–100 cm) in the initial 7-yr period, while the sequestration occurred later (>7 yr) in the 100–120 cm layer after the “Grain-for-Green” project was implemented. The carbon sink function measured for the afforested land provides evidence that the Grain-for-Green project has successfully excavated the carbon sink potential of the Shaanxi province and served as an important milestone for establishing an effective organic carbon management program.

Partial Text

Soil organic carbon (SOC) is an important component of soil that plays a key role in the functions of both natural and agricultural ecosystems. In ecosystem services, SOC is critical for ensuring sustainable food production owing to its nutrient retention function and water-holding capacity [1], [2]. The global SOC stock has been estimated to be 1400–1500 Pg C in the upper 100 cm soil layer [3]–[5], which is approximately twice the amount of C in the atmosphere and three times the amount stored in terrestrial vegetation [6]. Todd-Brown et al [7] reported that the present-day global SOC stocks range from 514 to 3046 Pg C among 11 earth system models (ESMs). Thus, slight reductions in SOC contents due to changes in land-use, soil management, or rates of soil erosion, could significantly raise the CO2 in the atmosphere. Due to natural drought conditions, intensive human disturbance and severe soil erosion, the hilly-gully area of the Loess Plateau has the lowest soil organic carbon density (SOCD) in China [8]. However, it is possible to increase the organic carbon content and carbon sequestration capacity in the soils of this region through appropriate reforestation of degraded sloping croplands and other ecosystems, whose resilience capacity is intact [1], [9].

We examined the changes in the carbon sink and SOC content of the topsoil and subsoil following the “Grain-for-Green” (farmland-to-forestland conversion) project. The afforested land (alfalfa and black locust) soil displayed remarkable SOC sequestration compared to the sloping croplands. The two plantations studied exhibited SOC sequestration potential in the top soil (0–100 cm) in the initial 7-yr period, while the sequestration occurred later in the 100–120 cm layer (>7 yr after the “Grain-for-Green” project was implemented). Furthermore, our analyses provide evidence that SOC can be influenced by afforestation in semi-arid region such as the Loess Plateau, China. From a regional perspective, type of land use, age and species all had significant effects on the SOC sequestration in the “Grain-for-Green” project. The implementation of the program has further enhanced the vegetation restoration and ecological conservation and strengthened the management of the Loess Plateau ecosystem.