Call for conservation: Abandoned pasture

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Science  08 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6269, pp. 132
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6269.132-a

The statistics division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recently released its national land distribution data for the year 2013 (1), which is currently the only annual cross-country time series on agricultural land use. According to these data, over the past 15 years, total global pasture area has declined by 62 million hectares (−2%), the first significant decrease on record. In the 65 countries where pasture has shrunk, only 15 have shown an increase in total agricultural land, and across all 65, total agricultural area declined by 109 million hectares. This implies that pasture land is not being used for different agricultural purposes, and instead suggests that an area approximately the size of South Africa may have recently been abandoned. All of this is despite a production increase from ruminants (meat, milk, hides, and wool) of 35% over the same period (1).

Where pasture has declined, most reductions have been annually persistent; a one-off methodology change is an unlikely explanation. Rather, these striking data could be due to a range of factors making grazing more intensive and less mobile, coupled with changing economic and environmental conditions. For example, in Australia, which represents a large part of the decline, 25 years of low wool prices (1) have affected stock numbers, and desertification and woody encroachment have reduced productive pasture area (2). In Iran, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (also countries of substantial decline), land and livestock privatization, urbanization, and changing management practices have spatially concentrated production (3), reducing total land use.

If the data are accurate, we may be able to benefit from a sizeable land-sparing conservation opportunity (4) and restore vast areas of natural habitat through reforestation or reestablishment of natural grasslands. In doing so, we will confront a number of questions: Will the land become wild again naturally, meaning no action is required? Is it most productive to build relationships with landowners to facilitate conservation goals? Given that land values are likely low, is this a chance for opportunistic and targeted land acquisitions that could serve as foundations for new protected areas? Whatever the case, conservationists need to move quickly, as other actors are already laying out their ambitions for using pasture (5).


  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAOSTAT (Database) (2015); http://faostat3.fao.org/.

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