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Abandoned farms could be transformed into millions of hectares of conservation reserves

What if we didn't just leave old farmland to lie fallow?
December 20, 2019

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The planet is littered with plots of degraded farmland, unproductive and unused. But what if we transformed this unwanted earth into conservation reserves? 

Researchers on a new Nature Sustainability paper make the case that converting millions of hectares of unproductive agricultural land globally could be an ingenious way to help us meet our conservation goals, and bring down global emissions.

Currently, conservationists tend to focus their attention on lands that also happen to be highly sought-after for other purposes – like farming, development, or resource extraction. This focus is understandable, because most often, these lands occur in regions that are hugely biodiverse and ecologically important. But acquiring these plots to safeguard for conservation can be hugely costly and time-consuming, precisely because they’re valued by so many different parties. And inevitably, that slows down crucial conservation efforts.

Recognising this conundrum, the team of international researchers chose to highlight the overlooked conservation potential of what they call ‘uncontested’ lands: millions of hectares of fallow farmland that is no longer valuable or particularly attractive to anyone else. 

The amount of empty and degraded farmland on our planet is actually growing, they point out. Degraded soils, urbanisation, changing food markets, rising yields, economic uncertainty, and political change are just some of the many reasons why former farmland becomes unproductive, or is abandoned over time. Analysis from the Food and Agriculture Organisation shows there were huge declines in cropland and pasture area between 2000 and 2016, and pastures in particular dropped by 140 million hectares – only a small percentage of which was repurposed for other types of agriculture.

Instead of leaving this land to dwindle into dust, the researchers propose that conservationists also recognise its huge potential for conversion. One huge incentive? Degraded or unused agricultural area will likely be much cheaper to purchase, and can be obtained much more quickly. And if we regenerate these old plots – for instance, planting them up with carbon-capturing forests – they could act as a stopgap in reaching our conservation goals.

What the researchers outline in their paper is currently just an argument for this hypothetical goal. And of course, it’s not just a matter of taking old land and converting it: the reality is more nuanced.

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To that end, they created a framework that outlines how, in the future, we might identify ex-farmland that’s most worth converting into conservation reserves.

Specifically, they weighed up the tradeoffs between the land’s potential for agricultural production, and the cost of acquiring and restoring it for conservation. This predictably revealed that the cheapest land is likely to be the most agriculturally-unproductive. But also, if that poor productivity is due to degradation, this would require a fair amount of land restoration before it can be used as a conservation base – and that could be costly. 

Using these guiding principles, the researchers outline one ideal hypothetical example: locating farmland in a region where changing market factors, instead of degradation, have made some types of farming unprofitable. This would cause the abandonment of land, and thus make it available for conservation. But because the farmland isn’t degraded, it wouldn’t come with huge restoration costs – enabling a huge conservation win.

The analytical approach the researchers outline in their paper could be an initial step to identifying unused farmland regionally. As as well as this, remote-sensing technology, combined with extensive data on regional crop production, could help us locate uncontested lands at a global scale, they write.

And also important, they add, is that we stick strictly with the definition of ‘uncontested land’ – meaning ex-farmland that has any indigenous or cultural importance should not be incorporated or pursued. Crucially, this will avoid what the researchers call “green land grabs”. 

Other studies have already suggested that we’re reaching ‘peak farmland’, wherein the amount of land we need to produce food is declining – and thus leaving tracts of wasted earth behind. Ultimately, this research outlines a vision for transforming those forgotten farms into land that can actively benefit the earth. “These spaces could offer great opportunities, and it’s time we recognise what that could mean and where it might be,” the researchers say.

Source: Xie et. al. “Conservation opportunities on uncontested lands.” Nature Sustainability. 2019.
Image: via Flickr

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