Emilio J. González. UCO.


The adoption of cover crops, also known as groundcovers in permanent crops, in olive orchards has gained attention for its significant role in carbon sequestration, contributing to the broader objectives of sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation. Cover crops, which may include different species of grasses, legumes, and other herbaceous plants, are grown to cover the soil surface. These plants not only enhance soil carbon storage but also improve soil health, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, improve water balance, biodiversity, and provide economic benefits. This summary explores the mechanisms by which cover crops sequester carbon, their impact on soil health, reduction of GHG emissions, and the associated economic and agronomic advantages, while addressing the challenges and opportunities related to their implementation. Since olive orchards, especially those located in Mediterranean region, face challenges such as soil degradation and the impacts of climate change, cover crops offer a multifaceted solution contributing to the sustainability of olive production.

Mechanisms of Carbon Sequestration

Soil carbon sequestration is an important process in mitigating climate change, and agricultural practices play a key role in this context. Olive orchards, with their permanent and extensive root systems, present unique opportunities for carbon storage. Cover crops, which are grown in between tree lines, are increasingly recognized for their ability to capture atmospheric carbon and incorporate it into the soil organic matter.

Cover crops play a crucial role in carbon sequestration through several key mechanisms. Compared to bare soil tillage systems, growing these plants capture an extra of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) via photosynthesis and convert it into organic matter, which is subsequently integrated into the soil. The root systems of cover crops enhance soil structure by promoting the formation of soil aggregates, which protect organic carbon from microbial decomposition. Aboveground biomass from cover crops adds organic matter to the soil surface, further increasing soil organic carbon levels as it decomposes. Additionally, the continuous cover provided by these plants reduces soil erosion, ensuring that the carbon stored in the soil remains protected and less susceptible to loss.

Soil Health and Structure

Cover crops significantly improve soil health, which is a fundamental aspect of their role in carbon sequestration. By maintaining continuous ground cover, cover crops prevent soil erosion, reducing the loss of topsoil and organic matter. Their roots penetrate and break up compacted soil layers, improving soil aeration and water infiltration. Enhanced soil structure facilitates better root growth for olive trees, leading to increased nutrient uptake and overall tree health. The addition of organic matter from groundcovers supports a diverse and active soil microbial community, which is essential for nutrient cycling and the stabilization of soil organic carbon.

A critical aspect of cover crops is their ability to build soil organic matter. As cover crops grow, they deposit root exudates and decaying root biomass into the soil. This organic input not only increases soil carbon content but also enhances soil structure, making it more resilient to erosion and compaction. Improved soil structure leads to better root penetration and nutrient uptake by olive trees, promoting healthier and more productive orchards.

Furthermore, cover crops contribute to the formation of soil aggregates. These aggregates, composed of soil particles bound together by organic matter, protect carbon from being rapidly decomposed by microbes. This physical protection is vital for long-term carbon storage, as it slows down the decomposition process and increases the retention time of carbon in the soil. Aggregated soils are also more resistant to erosion, further safeguarding the stored carbon.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG)

The use of cover crops in olive orchards can also lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrogen fixation by leguminous cover crops is another important factor in reducing GHG emissions. Legumes have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers. The production and application of fertilizers are energy-intensive processes that contribute significantly to GHG emissions. By minimizing soil disturbance, groundcovers help to reduce CO₂ emissions associated with soil organic matter decomposition and help farmers save significant amount of fuel. These combined effects not only enhance soil carbon storage but also reduce the overall carbon footprint of olive orchard.

Economic and Agronomic Benefits

In addition to environmental benefits, cover crops offer significant economic and agronomic advantages. Improved soil health and structure lead to increased olive yields and higher fruit quality, providing economic benefits to farmers. The reduction in input costs, such as the need for fertilizers and pesticides, further enhances the profitability of olive production. These economic incentives encourage the adoption of cover crops practices, promoting sustainable agriculture on a broader scale. On top of this, cover crops facilitate harvesting, since the machinery trafficability is favoured by the presence of mulch during autumn and winter.

Cover crops can also reduce operational costs associated with soil management. By enhancing soil structure and fertility, groundcovers reduce the need for mechanical soil cultivation, which is both labour-intensive and fuel-consuming. This not only lowers labour costs but also decreases the carbon emissions associated with the use of agricultural machinery. Furthermore, the improved soil health resulting from groundcover use can reduce the incidence of soil-borne diseases and pests, leading to lower costs for pest and disease management.

The participation of farmers in new CAP’s eco-schemes or in the voluntary carbon markets should also be considered as an extra benefit provided by cover crops. The carbon credits produced may vary depending on the biomass generated, the soil management system followed and of the agro-climatic conditions.

Challenges and Considerations

Despite the clear benefits, the adoption of cover crops in olive orchards faces several challenges. Initial implementation costs, the need for specific knowledge and management skills, and potential competition for water and nutrients between cover crops and olive trees are notable concerns. Addressing these challenges requires targeted research, farmer education, and policy support. Extension services and agricultural programs can play a crucial role in providing the necessary training and resources to farmers, ensuring successful integration of cover crops into olive orchard systems.


Cover crops represent a powerful tool for enhancing soil carbon storage in olive orchards, offering a range of environmental, economic, and agronomic benefits. By improving soil health, conserving water, increasing biodiversity, and reducing GHG emissions, cover crops contribute to more sustainable and resilient olive production systems. Overcoming the challenges associated with their adoption will require coordinated efforts in research, education, and policy. As climate change continues to threaten agricultural systems globally, the implementation of cover crops in olive orchards stands out as a promising strategy for achieving long-term sustainability and climate resilience. Cover crops should be perceived as a opportunity for farmers to participate in voluntary carbon markets and new green lines in the agricultural policies.