“The default mode of all land is regeneration.”[i]
Land is resilient: when degraded, it rebounds, regaining its ability to sustain life. Over the last century, however, land degradation—defined by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization[ii] as “any diminishment of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning that negatively impacts the provisioning of ecosystem services and ultimately impedes poverty eradication and sustainable development”—has risen exponentially. Of the 1.1 billion acres of degraded farmland around the world, 99% was abandoned in the 20th century[iii].
The consequences of land degradation are far-reaching. For one, Professor Rattan Lal of The Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources[iv] estimates that the world’s agricultural soil (both degraded and not) has released anywhere from 50-70% of its carbon[v] into the atmosphere. This carbon loss contributes significantly to the agricultural sector’s 20% share[vi] of greenhouse gas emissions every year.
Losing our farmland also bodes ill for our ability to sustain the world’s growing population. In 2010, one-third to one-half[vii] of all agricultural land suffered from some level of degradation—with one quarter of that total[viii] categorized as severely degraded. Inefficiently farmed with monocultures doused in herbicides, 80% of our land currently produces enough food to feed only 30% of our population[ix]. (It takes[x] 1.5 hectares of monocultural crops to produce the same amount of food as one hectare of polycultural crops.) Such unhealthy practices are also expensive: farmland degradation led to losses of $40 billion USD[xi] in 2014 alone.
It’s clear that we need to start restoring our abandoned and degraded farmland. Restoring just half[xii] of 1.1 billion degraded acres could save 14 gigatons of CO2 and produce nearly 10 billion more tons of food—all at a profit of over $1 trillion USD. That’s why Farmland Restoration ranks at #23[xiii] on its top 100 solutions[xiv] to reverse climate change.
The Nuts and Seeds of Farmland Restoration
Drawdown defines farmland restoration[xv] as “a set of processes for restoring degraded, abandoned land to productivity and biosequestration.” Abandoned farmland has been transformed at least twice[xvi]: first from its initial state into cultivated land, and then from fertile land to degraded and sometimes even deserted (i.e., turned into desert) land.
The good news is that we’ve already covered many land regeneration techniques in this educational series[xvii]. Crop rotation and cover cropping[xviii], tree intercropping[xix] (also known as agroforestry), and silvopasture[xx] are just a handful of effective examples. As different as they are, these practices all share the fundamental principle of biodiversity: rotating different crops, combining staple trees with annuals, grazing animals in forest shades.
What makes these methods so full of promise is that they do not restore land simply with an eye to reinstating the same practices that degraded the land in the first place. Instead, they offer radical new ways of interacting with the land that are holistic and non-exploitative.
The goal should not be to simply transform millions of acres of woods into fields, but rather, to utilize anew that land for food production. There is a subtle yet important difference here, stemming from the fact that open fields are not the only way to grow food.
For example, he suggests that we start to think beyond 3- or 5-year cycles for a given parcel of land, instead constructing timelines that last hundreds of years and include not only agricultural use but also forest regrowth. Such long-term vision prioritizes not only future generations of people but also plants and other animals.
What You Can Do to Promote Farmland Restoration
Few policies currently exist in the U.S. that focus on farmland restoration; the 1981 Farmland Policy Protection Act (FPPA)[xxiii] attempts to limit degradation of any farmland as its converted to non-farming use, but it ultimately isn’t focused on regaining that land for farming.
A stronger model for such policies exists, however, in laws that govern reclamation of land from mining and other extractive technologies; Illinois’s “Citizen’s Guide to Farmland Reclamation,”[xxiv] for instance, instructs residents on the legal obligations that mining companies have to restore mined land to agricultural use. Based on the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA)[xxv], this guide offers a powerful template for the kinds of laws that could be applied to agricultural companies and farms that have abandoned degraded land. Individual states[xxvi] have also recently implemented their own farmland restoration programs.
There are challenges, of course: for instance, it can be difficult—if not impossible—to demand that small farms or businesses revitalize lost land if they lack the resources; if anything, such policies beg to be applied to the larger corporations that monopolize the conventional agricultural practices that have caused so much degradation in the first place.
In Drawdown’s top 25 most beneficial solutions to reverse climate change, just over half have to do with new ways of using our land—especially farmland. The strength of these solutions lies in their interconnectivity and simplicity: when silvopasture combines grazing with tropical staple trees, for instance, soil regeneration and biodiversity growth go hand in hand with food production—and all of these benefits add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Such exponential growth is at the heart of farmland restoration: with just a little bit of care and attention on our part, restored farmland repays the investment many times over.
[i] Drawdown, 41.
[v] Drawdown, 41.
[xii] Drawdown, 41.
[xix] LINK TO TREE INTERCROPPING POST WHEN LIVE.