Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Quandary over abandoned Soviet croplands

Quirin Schiermeier in Nature: The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 heralded the end of many unprofitable communist industries, along with unprecedented changes in land use. As the free-market economy took hold, large swathes of Soviet cropland were abandoned by farmers and reclaimed by nature, causing a headache for today’s policy-makers. Should it be replanted to feed hungry mouths, or left wild to act as a substantial sink for polluting carbon dioxide?

The issue resurfaced this month after a study suggested that the area of cropland abandoned since 1990 in western Russia, Belarus and Ukraine has been severely underestimated. According to figures based on regional sowing statistics, more than one-quarter of former agricultural land in the region is idle. This equates to about 31 million hectares — or an area the size of Poland — and is more than three times the area estimated in 2009 by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization mainly on the basis of land-use observations from space.

...“The Soviet Union strived for complete agricultural self-sufficiency,” says Schierhorn, and this meant farming even low-quality land. He says that grain production in fertile regions is still substantial, but has dropped sharply in less fertile spots. This is mainly because, after 1990, there was a massive decrease in Soviet animal stock, so less need for animal feed, he adds.

Many sites once used to produce feed could today support wheat varieties and other cereals, Schierhorn says. If fully replanted, he estimates the region’s idle land could yield some 90 million tonnes of grain per year — about 35 million tonnes more than Russia’s wheat production in 2013. Recultivating only a portion of the land would buffer Russia against its notoriously erratic yields...

Children digging up frozen potatoes on a collective farm in the Donets Basin, 1933

No comments: