Researchers at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions (CNCS) are urging governments to rethink the use of abandoned croplands for supporting climate mitigation and food security efforts.
The study emphasizes the “second chance” these neglected lands deserve for addressing dual global crises of climate change and food shortage.
The researchers noted that the rising food demand associated with escalating global populations has led to the expansive growth of agricultural lands. Unfortunately, this expansion often encroaches upon and endangers crucial natural habitats like tropical forests.
At the same time, a substantial amount of croplands are abandoned annually due to various factors including land degradation, socio-economic shifts, disasters, armed conflicts, and urbanization.
The experts found that between 1992 and 2020, there was an abandonment of approximately 101 million hectares of croplands globally, mirroring the land size of Egypt.
This translates to an abandonment rate of around 3.6 million hectares annually, or lands about 50 times the size of Singapore being deserted each year.
However, the CNCS study sheds new light on the potential of these abandoned croplands. Through strategic management, abandoned croplands can be effectively recultivated or reforested to serve as powerful nature-based solutions.
Recultivation for food production would alleviate the pressure of clearing forests for new croplands, thereby aiding in the conservation of existing forests.
Conversely, reforesting these lands would establish young forests that act as carbon sinks, absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide and playing a pivotal role in climate change mitigation.
The study’s analysis of geospatial data reveals that out of the global 101 million hectares of abandoned cropland, 61 million hectares are viable for recultivation. This could potentially produce enough food to nourish between 292 to 476 million people annually.
However, it is crucial to consider that this endeavor would also incur emissions from clearing the vegetation on these abandoned areas.
Furthermore, the researchers identified 83 million hectares available for reforestation. If fully utilized, these reforested lands could sequester up to 1,066 million tons of carbon dioxide per annum, roughly equivalent to Japan’s yearly emissions.
Interestingly, about half of the total abandoned cropland, approximately 50.5 million hectares, was deemed suitable for both recultivation and reforestation.
Policymakers should weigh the benefits and trade-offs of either recultivation or reforestation based on specific national circumstances, priorities, and various other influencing factors.
For instance, local policies, market access, and the degree of openness to international trade could significantly impact these decisions.
“In the face of global challenges such as climate change and food scarcity, countries are often faced with the shortage of available land and the tough choice of whether land should be allocated for carbon sequestration or food production. But our study has found that abandoned cropland is a largely untapped resource that could help to achieve either or both aims,” said lead researcher Dr. Qiming Zheng.
“Nevertheless, it requires an integrative use of scientific analysis of the land suitability and achieveable potentials, as well as context-specific local knowledge, to best unlock the potential of abandoned cropland.”
The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.
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