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Abandoned farmland can be used for climate change mitigation

Climate change poses significant challenges and opportunities within the agricultural sector. The transformation of abandoned farmland into areas that contribute positively to the environment is an emerging solution that strikes a balance between ecological needs and agricultural demands.

Recent research demonstrates how these forgotten fields could be pivotal in the broader climate change strategy.

Abandoned farmlands

Abandoned farmland refers to agricultural land that is no longer actively used for farming.

Over time, these fields have been left untended, often due to economic challenges, urbanization, changes in farming practices, or environmental factors.

As a result, the land may revert to natural states like grasslands, shrublands, or forests.

Farmers might abandon land if it’s no longer profitable due to poor soil quality, low crop yields, or market changes. Urban expansion can also lead to farmland being deserted, as cities grow and encroach on rural areas.

Sometimes, government policies or incentives might encourage farmers to leave certain areas fallow to conserve resources or protect the environment.

Abandoned farmland represents a significant, underutilized resource. With proper management, it can be repurposed to support ecological projects, such as growing bioenergy crops that sequester carbon or restoring natural habitats to increase biodiversity.

By identifying and utilizing these lands, we can address climate change challenges and promote sustainable land use practices.

Mapping abandoned farmland for climate change mitigation

Led by Yanhua Xie and Tyler Lark at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, a team of scientists has developed a cutting-edge tool using machine learning.

This tool has mapped nearly 30 million acres of U.S. abandoned farmland since the 1980s, illustrating substantial opportunities for sustainable practices that could aid in climate change mitigation.

Map showing abandoned farmland and crops in the U.S.
Map showing abandoned farmland and crops in the U.S.

The findings, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, highlight potential uses for these lands, including the cultivation of bioenergy crops like switchgrass or sorghum that sequester carbon in the soil.

“If we can understand where these lands are and what the characteristics are, we can really understand their true potential for things like climate mitigation,” explains Tyler Lark, associated with the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

He emphasizes the importance of deploying clean energy solutions in these areas to minimize competition with food production and other land uses.

High-resolution approach

Previously, data on abandoned farmland were vague and generalized at best. The recent study changes this by providing detailed, field-level insights.

“This is really the highest resolution analysis available, looking right on the landscape—field by field, acre by acre — of where these crop lands are,” Lark says.

Utilizing satellite imagery data from 1986 to 2018, the algorithm developed by the researchers can accurately identify and categorize these abandoned fields, pinpointing their locations and the approximate times of abandonment.

Surprising findings on land use

The analysis shows that much of the abandoned farmland has naturally transitioned to different types of vegetation.

These include pastures, grasslands, shrublands, and wetlands. These areas have developed naturally over time without active human intervention.

Surprisingly, less than 20% of this abandoned land is part of formal conservation programs. This indicates that a significant portion of this land remains underutilized in terms of structured environmental management.

This presents a considerable opportunity to transform these areas for purposes that can help mitigate climate change.

By converting these underutilized lands, we can implement sustainable practices that contribute positively to the environment.

Abandoned farmland and climate change

The researchers plan to delve deeper into the reasons behind the abandonment of these lands and to explore potential optimal uses.

Integrating additional data, such as socioeconomic factors and tax records, will provide further clarity on how best to utilize these lands in the context of climate change.

Whether for bioenergy production, solar installations, or restoring natural ecosystems, the possibilities are vast.

This remarkable study, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and in collaboration with Michigan State University, has provided an essential tool available in the GLBRC’s interactive atlas.

This atlas not only charts abandoned farmland but also tracks trends in farmland use and irrigation, serving as a critical resource for those aiming to align agricultural practices with climate change mitigation goals.

The full study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.


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