Abandoned Croplands Can Help Address Food Scarcity

Better management of abandoned croplands can enhance food security and mitigate climate change, shows a study.

Asian Scientist Magazine (Nov. 06, 2023) —In a recent study, researchers from the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions showed the importance of abandoned croplands in tackling food security and mitigating climate change. The research was published in Nature Communications.

Despite the increasing worries about agricultural land scarcity, cropland abandonment has increased significantly worldwide—a phenomenon that has mainly gone unreported. These deserted croplands, which covered an incredible 101 million hectares across continents between 1992 and 2020, can be used to grow more food.

“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,” said lead researcher Qiming Zheng from Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions, National University of Singapore in an article published on EurekAlert, underscoring the study’s significance. However, our research has shown that abandoned cropland is a relatively unexplored resource that may be useful in achieving one or both of these objectives.”

In order to meet the growing demand to feed the world’s population, more and more swathes of land is being used for agriculture. Sometimes even tropical forests and other natural ecosystems are sacrificed in the process.

The study shows that there are vast abandoned croplands in the Central and East Asia, Americas, Europe, and Russia. These can be used for reforestation or recultivation for food

Moreover, the study highlights that out of 101 million hectares of abandoned croplands, a remarkable 61 million hectares can be used for agricultural purposes. This land could yield food to feed between 292 to 476 million people each year, thereby reducing the pressure to clear forests for new cropland. However, because the vegetation that has developed in the abandoned areas must be cleared, recultivation comes with a trade-off in emissions.

The study also revealed that 83 million hectares of abandoned cropland are suitable for reforestation. The young trees on these sites might absorb up to 1,066 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year if they were reforested, which is almost equal to Japan’s yearly emissions. Remarkably, out of the total abandoned croplands available, about half could be used for both reforestation and agricultural purposes. This gives policymakers an option based on their national priorities and conditions.

Whether the area should be used for reforestation or agriculture would depend on a number of factors, including international trade openness, local policies, and market access.

The study’s findings offer a timely and promising insight into the underutilized potential of abandoned cropland. As the world grapples with the urgency of addressing climate change and food security, this research shows that the answers may lie in the very land we have already used and then abandoned.

Source: National University of Singapore; Image: Shutterstock

The article can be found at: The neglected role of abandoned cropland in supporting both food security and climate change mitigation.

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of Asian Scientist or its staff.


Parvaiz Yousuf is a science journalist and researcher based in Kashmir, India.

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