Environmental Science Agricultural Land Abandonment
Alexander V. Prishchepov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0129


Agricultural land abandonment is increasingly a global land-cover change phenomenon that has strong implications for the environment (e.g., biodiversity, carbon sequestration, novel ecosystems, wildfires) and societal well-being (livelihood, agricultural landscapes). Agricultural land abandonment is often referred to as the cessation of farming and giving away land for natural succession, such as grasses, shrubs, and trees on former agricultural lands, but may also result in land degradation. Agricultural land abandonment can be a more complex land-change transition, including the cessation of agricultural activity in favor of land uses other than agricultural ones, such as forestry, construction of dwellings, game reserves, and tourism. Studies have shown that agricultural land abandonment often is driven by rational decision-making and profit maximization, including weighing up opportunity costs and alternative livelihood strategies. However, the conditions of institutions, which are supposed to govern land use, and the personal characteristics of those involved in agricultural activities, are playing a vital role in the decision of abandonment. It should also be noted that the decision on abandonment or maintenance of farming can be quite complex and driven by non-economic factors, such as personal predisposition to farming, education, ethnicity, religion, age, and availability of successors. The progress of studying land abandonment and existing research gaps are highlighted in the text.

Definition and Spatial Distribution of Agricultural Land Abandonment Globally

In the literature, abandoned agricultural lands are sometimes also called old fields, fallow or idle fields, or post-agrogenic lands. Agricultural land abandonment is often referred to as the process of cessation of farming activities, both with intentional and unintentional giving away of land for natural encroachment, for instance, natural afforestation due to dispersal of seeds from the neighboring forest patches. However, abandonment may also represent bare and degraded lands without much vegetation succession. Yet, other land-change trajectories may also occur on abandoned lands, such as intentional reforestation (e.g., tree plantations in European countries, the United States, and South Africa), creation of game and nature reserves (the European countries and Africa-Tanzania), and the sprawl of residential areas in rural-urban fringes (for example, Bucharest). Such multiple pathways of abandonment and reuse of abandoned lands are touched on by the opinion paper Munroe, et al. 2013. In sum, agricultural land abandonment is often not a terminal but rather a transitional process. At the same time, abandonment can be distinguished from fallowing as a crop rotation process, slash-and-burn agriculture, or shifting cultivation in both forest- and grassland-dominated areas. Agricultural land abandonment was considered a common land-change process across the developed countries and transition economies, such as the European Union countries and the former Soviet Bloc countries, but the evidence suggests it is a common land-change process in other parts of the world, such as in China, Iran, Nepal, and South Korea. The studies Alcantara, et al. 2013 and Hatna and Bakker 2011 provided useful insights about widespread agricultural land abandonment in Europe, particularly across post-Soviet and post-socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. However, multiple studies suggest that agricultural land abandonment is a widespread land-change process globally, and the literature review Li and Li 2017 as well as a study of Yin, et al. 2020 confirmed so. In general, certain regions could be particularly prone to abandonment, such as the mountainous and the Mediterranean regions, for instance, in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

  • Alcantara, C., T. Kuemmerle, M. Baumann, et al. 2013. Mapping the extent of abandoned farmland in Central and Eastern Europe using MODIS time series satellite data. Environmental Research Letters 8.3.

    DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/035035

    A wall-to-wall study that mapped agricultural land abandonment across Europe with the aid of MODIS satellite imagery. The study also showed how different abandonment rates are from country to country.

  • Hatna, E., and M. M. Bakker. 2011. Abandonment and expansion of arable land in Europe. Ecosystems 14.5: 720–731.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10021-011-9441-y

    A study that documented the spatial distribution and determinants of agricultural land abandonment in Europe.

  • Li, S., and X. Li. 2017. Global understanding of farmland abandonment: A review and prospects. Journal of Geographical Sciences 27.9: 1123–1150.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11442-017-1426-0

    A good review of the global patterns and drivers of land abandonment.

  • Munroe, D. K., D. B. van Berkel, P. H. Verburg, and J. L. Olson. 2013. Alternative trajectories of land abandonment: Causes, consequences and research challenges. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 5.5 (October): 471–476.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2013.06.010

    A good opinion paper, which also includes a theoretical flowchart on alternative trajectories of land abandonment.

  • Yin, H., A. Brandão, J. Buchner, et al. 2020. Monitoring cropland abandonment with Landsat time series. Remote Sensing of Environment 246:111873.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.rse.2020.111873

    Documented evidence of widespread agricultural land abandonment globally. The study also showed the challenge of mapping abandonment among smallholder farmers.

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