Farmland Restoration places #23 on Drawdown’s list of climate solutions. Restoring 424 million acres of abandoned farmland to rich agricultural life by 2050 would, after a total investment of $72 billion, sequester 14.08 gigatons of carbon dioxide while providing a financial return of $1.3 trillion—and an additional 9.5 billion tonnes of food.
Farmers walk away from their land for a number of reasons, Drawdown explains. Oftentimes, destructive agricultural practices have actively depleted the soil, but climate impacts like desertification—especially in the Sahel and China—are increasingly contributing to farm abandonment.
One Stanford University study estimated that “there are 950 million to 1.1 billion acres of deserted farmland around the world,” most having been abandoned in the 20th century. Critical to understanding the scope of this problem is that while the healthier parts of this “forsaken land” will slowly restore themselves passively, as carbon-sequestering plants and trees return, the more eroded soils that offer no purchase to living things will continue to degrade, releasing what remains of their carbon stores to the atmosphere.
What farmland restoration thus affords is a huge opportunity to draw down atmospheric carbon. “Depleted farmland soils could reabsorb 88 to 110 billion tons of carbon, all the while enhancing tilth, fertility, biodiversity, and the water cycle,” estimates Ohio State University Prof. Rattan Lal.
And restoring farmlands to rich and long-term productivity will mean a boon, both to farmer livelihoods and to food security.
While “the default mode of all land is regeneration,” the high labour intensity of active restoration makes it expensive, and returns on investment often accrue very slowly. Which means that, “for this solution to take root, formal schemes to finance regeneration will be a necessary stimulus to action, helping landowners make changes without (sometime literally) having to bet the farm,” Drawdown notes.