Journal Article

Agricultural use of wetlands: opportunities and limitations

Jos T. A. Verhoeven and Tim L. Setter

in Annals of Botany

Published on behalf of The Annals of Botany Company

Volume 105, issue 1, pages 155-163
Published in print January 2010 | ISSN: 0305-7364
Published online August 2009 | e-ISSN: 1095-8290 | DOI:
Agricultural use of wetlands: opportunities and limitations

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  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Plant Sciences and Forestry


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Wetlands are species-rich habitats performing valuable ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality enhancement, food chain support and carbon sequestration. Worldwide, wetlands have been drained to convert them into agricultural land or industrial and urban areas. A realistic estimate is that 50 % of the world's wetlands have been lost.


This paper reviews the relationship between wetlands and agriculture with the aim to identify the successes and failures of agricultural use in different types of wetlands, with reference to short-term and long-term benefits and issues of sustainability. It also addresses a number of recent developments which will lead to pressure to reclaim and destroy natural wetlands, i.e. the continuous need for higher production to feed an increasing world population and the increasing cultivation of energy crops. Finally, attention is paid to the development of more flood-tolerant crop cultivars.


Agriculture has been carried out in several types of (former) wetlands for millennia, with crop fields on river floodplain soils and rice fields as major examples. However, intensive agricultural use of drained/reclaimed peatlands has been shown to lead to major problems because of the oxidation and subsidence of the peat soil. This does not only lead to severe carbon dioxide emissions, but also results in low-lying land which needs to be protected against flooding. Developments in South-East Asia, where vast areas of tropical peatlands are being converted into oil palm plantations, are of great concern in this respect. Although more flood-tolerant cultivars of commercial crop species are being developed, these are certainly not suitable for cultivation in wetlands with prolonged flooding periods, but rather will survive relatively short periods of waterlogging in normally improved agricultural soils. From a sustainability perspective, reclamation of peatlands for agriculture should be strongly discouraged. The opportunities for agriculture in naturally functioning floodplains should be further investigated. The development and use of crop cultivars with an even stronger flood tolerance could form part of the sustainable use of such floodplain systems. Extensive use of wetlands without drastic reclamation measures and without fertilizer and pesticides might result in combinations of food production with other wetland services, with biodiversity remaining more or less intact. There is a need for research by agronomists and environmental scientists to optimize such solutions.

Keywords: Wetlands; sustainable agriculture; peat subsidence; floodplains; rice fields; water use; irrigation

Journal Article.  6092 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Ecology and Conservation ; Evolutionary Biology ; Plant Sciences and Forestry

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