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Soil organic matter is a key component of all terrestrial ecosystems, and any variation in its composition and abundance has important effects on many of the processes that occur within the system. The role of soil organic matter in soil nutrient cycling and soil gaseous emissions is discussed in the context of agricultural sustainability and global environmental change. Recent data on organic carbon and nitrogen reserves in the soils of the world are presented, with special reference to the subtropical and tropical regions. Possibilities for long-lasting, enhanced sequestration of carbon in the soil through management of the land and water resources are reviewed. Finally, the need is stressed for an up-to-date database on soil resources and for a global monitoring system in order to permit the study of changes in soil organic matter quantity and quality over time, as determined by changes in land-use and climate.