Around the world, farmers are walking away from lands that were once cultivated or grazed because those lands have been “farmed out.” The causes range from damaging agricultural practices to desertification, from lack of market access to migration. It can be cheaper to walk away from the land than to work it.
There are an estimated 950 million to 1.1 billion acres of deserted farmland around the world—acreage once used for crops or pasture that has not been restored as forest or converted to development. This land offers an opportunity to improve food security, farmers’ livelihoods, ecosystem health, and carbon drawdown simultaneously.
To feed a growing population and protect forests from deforestation for fresh farmland, restoring abandoned cropland and pastureland is key. Bringing abandoned lands back into productive use can also turn them into carbon sinks. Where soils are left to erode, abandoned farmlands can be a source of emissions.
Restoration can mean the return of native vegetation, the establishment of tree plantations, or the introduction of regenerative farming methods. Active restoration is labor intensive, yet necessary for cultivation to revive. Programs to finance regeneration are a necessary stimulus to action, helping landowners make changes without having to bet the farm.
Measuring…deserted farmland: Gibbs, H. K., and J. M. Salmon. “Mapping the World’s Degraded Lands.” Applied Geography 57 (2015): 12-21.
950 million to 1.1 billion acres: Campbell, J. Elliott, David B. Lobell, Robert C. Genova, and Christopher B. Field. “The Global Potential of Bioenergy on Abandoned Agriculture Lands.” Environmental Science & Technology 42, no. 15 (2008): 5791-5794.
Rattan Lal…[loss of] carbon stock: Olson, Kenneth R., Mahdi Al-Kaisi, Rattan Lal, and Larry Cihacek. “Impact of Soil Erosion on Soil Organic Carbon Stocks.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 71, no. 3 (2016): 61A-67A; Schwartz, Judith D. “Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight.” Yale Environment 360. March 4, 2014.
depleted farmland soils could reabsorb…carbon: Gardiner, Beth. “A Boon for Soil, and for the Environment.” New York Times. May 17, 2016.