More is better: smart farming makes abandoned land profitable

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More is better: smart farming makes abandoned land profitable

Abandoned agricultural lands are estimated to number 385 to 472 million hectares worldwide. Not only does this create an economic cost to the regions in which they located, it can also increase the expansion of agricultural or forestry operations into virgin forest. However, attempts to rehabilitate or restore abandoned agricultural lands can sometimes only focus on a monoculture which has been shown to not necessarily improve ecosystem services. A team from the respected Technical University Munich has recently published research showing how agricultural lands with ‘high compositional diversity’, also known as mosaic farming, could be a better alternative and maximise the amount of profit and environmental protection that an area of land can provide while also being more able to withstand disturbances.

Titled ‘[c]ompositional diversity of rehabilitated tropical land supports multiple ecosystem services and buffers uncertainties’, the scientists based their findings from 15 years of data of abandoned agricultural lands in Ecuador. Using 22 different indicators (such as biomass production, carbon and food provision) and performing multi-objective optimization, the researchers found the optimal landscape mosaic would be 24% abandoned area, 25% Pinus patula (an exotic tree), 21% Alnus acuminata (a native tree of Ecuador), 20% intense pastures and 10% low-input pastures. Importantly, the scientists found that mosaic cultivation protect a large range of ecosystem services against the adverse effects of uncertainty, this also supports policies that seek to prevent landscape homogenization.

When considering ecosystem service indicators, the paper distinguishes between ecological and socioeconomic indicators. As a result of the analysis, it was found that if ecological indicators were prioritised over economic indicators (and vice versa) then the other would suffer, however, this makes sense as economic indicators would be lower if a larger area of the land is preserved as ‘abandoned’, as there would be less production. But the scientists did note that optimization is maximised when ‘uncertainties’ from both ecological and socioeconomic indicators were factored into the model (a real life example is fluctuations of wood production or a natural disaster).

While the data used was for a specific region, there are still key themes that are relevant. Specifically, this is another example of research showing how land use can be maximised where the operations are diversified. We have written previously about research into ‘vertical stacking’ of farming operations and how it makes farms more resilient and sustainable. Also, economies of scale are vital to any farming operation but that must also be considered against the resilience of that land to disturbances, this supports techniques such rotation of cropping on the land and keeping native vegetation that is untouched. This research also has relevance as Australia’s farming population declined by 40% from 1981 to 2011.

Like regenerative farming practices, a benefit of research such as this is that it adds another layer to the conversation around methodologies that can be incorporated into a farming operation and in an era of anthropogenic climate change and declining number of farmers on the land, that can only be a good thing.


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