Lead Authors:
Alexander N. Hristov, The Pennsylvania State University
Jane M. E. Johnson, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Contributing Authors:
Charles W. Rice, Kansas State University
Molly E. Brown, University of Maryland
Richard T. Conant, Colorado State University
Stephen J. Del Grosso, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Noel P. Gurwick, U.S. Agency for International Development
C. Alan Rotz, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Upendra M. Sainju, USDA Agricultural Research Service
R. Howard Skinner, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Benjamin R. K. Runkle, University of Arkansas
Henry Janzen, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Sasha C. Reed, U.S. Geological Survey
Nancy Cavallaro, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Gyami Shrestha, U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
Science Lead:
Sasha C. Reed, U.S. Geological Survey
Review Editor:
Rachel Melnick, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Federal Liaisons:
Nancy Cavallaro, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Carolyn Olson (former), USDA Office of the Chief Economist


Agricultural production is a fundamental activity conducted on 45% of the U.S. land area, 55% of Mexico’s land area, and 7% of Canada’s land area (World Bank 2016). Because of this vast spatial extent and the strong role that land management plays in how agricultural ecosystems function, agricultural lands and activities represent a large portion of the North American carbon budget. Accordingly, improved quantification of the agricultural carbon cycle, new trends in agriculture, and added opportunities for emissions reductions provide a critical foundation for considering the relationships between agriculture and carbon cycling at local, regional, continental, and global scales. More than 145 countries have specifically included agriculture in their targets and actions for mitigating climate change (FAO 2016), and agriculture has featured particularly prominently in recent target and action commitments made by developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Richards et al., 2015).

Conversion of vast native forest and prairie to agriculture across North America between 1860 and 1960 resulted in carbon dioxide (CO2) fluxes to the atmosphere from biota and soils that exceeded those from fossil fuel emissions over the same period (Houghton et al., 1983). Correspondingly, soil organic carbon (SOC) declined in many soils during the 50 years following conversion from native ecosystems to production agriculture (Huggins et al., 1998; Janzen et al., 1998; Slobodian et al., 2002). Crop yields and corresponding above- and belowground biomass have steadily increased since the 1930s due to genetic and management innovations, which provide more organic input from which to build SOC (Johnson et al., 2006; Hatfield and Walthall 2015). This, coupled with improved input-use efficiencies may reduce GHG-emissions per unit yield (GHG intensity), with additional improvements possible through management optimization (Grassini and Cassman 2012; Pittelkow et al., 2015). Options include reducing tillage, integrating perennials onto the landscape, reducing or eliminating bare-fallow land (i.e., land without living plants), adding cover crops, and enrolling lands in conservation easement programs. These options, originally proposed to control erosion, have potential co-benefits in terms of increased soil health, plant productivity, and soil carbon stabilization (Lehman et al., 2015). Conversely, returning lands previously enrolled in conservation easements (e.g., the Conservation Reserve Program [CRP] and other land set-aside efforts) to row-crop production, tillage, or aggressive harvesting of crop residues all risk degrading soil quality and exacerbating SOC loss. Of note is that the net results of land use and land management practices in an agricultural setting vary according to many factors, such as crop or production system type, soil type, climate, and the collection of practices at any given site. For example, many traditional practices followed by Indigenous people on tribal lands are based on an integrated approach to natural resource management and response to environmental change that may provide agricultural options uniquely suited to varied environmental settings (see Ch. 7: Tribal Lands).

Agricultural land in the United States totaled 408.2 million hectares (ha) in 2014, of which 251 million ha were in permanent meadows and pastures, 152.2 million ha were in arable land, and 2.6 million ha were in permanent crops (FAOSTAT 2016). Compared with the distribution in 2007, these numbers reflect a 4.7 million ha decline in total agricultural lands, driven by declines in arable land and permanent crops but partially offset by a modest increase in permanent meadows and pastures. Although arable lands have been declining, the combined acreage of the four major crops (corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton) has risen slightly, with increases in land planted in corn and soybeans and decreases in cotton and wheat (see Figure 5.1). Despite the overall slight decline in agricultural land area, the value of U.S. agricultural production rose over the past decade as a result of increased production efficiency and higher prices (USDA 2017a; see also www.ers.usda.gov). Canada has about 65 million ha of agricultural land, of which about 46 million ha are arable, accounting for only about 7% of the country’s total land area (FAOSTAT 2017). Prominent crops on Canada’s arable lands include cereals (e.g., wheat, barley, and maize), oilseeds (e.g., canola and soybeans), and pulses (e.g., peas and lentils). Natural and seeded pastures available for grazing in Canada make up about 20 million ha (Legesse et al., 2016). Agricultural land in Mexico makes up 107 million ha, of which 23 million ha are arable land, 2.7 million ha are permanent crops, and 81 million ha are permanent meadows and pastures (FAOSTAT 2017). Mexico’s major crops are fruits, corn, grains, vegetables, and sugarcane.


Figure 5.1: U.S. Planted Area for Corn, Wheat, Soybeans, and Upland Cotton, 1990 to 2015

Figure 5.1: (1 acre = 0.404686 hectares). [Figure source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, baseline related historical data.]