Straw return has been widely recommended as an environmentally friendly practice to manage carbon (C) sequestration in agricultural ecosystems. However, the overall trend and magnitude of changes in soil C in response to straw return remain uncertain. In this meta-analysis, we calculated the response ratios of soil organic C (SOC) concentrations, greenhouse gases (GHGs) emission, nutrient contents and other important soil properties to straw addition in 176 published field studies. Our results indicated that straw return significantly increased SOC concentration by 12.8 ± 0.4% on average, with a 27.4 ± 1.4% to 56.6 ± 1.8% increase in soil active C fraction. CO2 emission increased in both upland (27.8 ± 2.0%) and paddy systems (51.0 ± 2.0%), while CH4 emission increased by 110.7 ± 1.2% only in rice paddies. N2O emission has declined by 15.2 ± 1.1% in paddy soils but increased by 8.3 ± 2.5% in upland soils. Responses of macro-aggregates and crop yield to straw return showed positively linear with increasing SOC concentration. Straw-C input rate and clay content significantly affected the response of SOC. A significant positive relationship was found between annual SOC sequestered and duration, suggesting that soil C saturation would occur after 12 years under straw return. Overall, straw return was an effective means to improve SOC accumulation, soil quality, and crop yield. Straw return-induced improvement of soil nutrient availability may favor crop growth, which can in turn increase ecosystem C input. Meanwhile, the analysis on net global warming potential (GWP) balance suggested that straw return increased C sink in upland soils but increased C source in paddy soils due to enhanced CH4 emission. Our meta-analysis suggested that future agro-ecosystem models and cropland management should differentiate the effects of straw return on ecosystem C budget in upland and paddy soils.
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