Soil loss due to crop harvesting in the European Union: A first estimation of an underrated geomorphic process

Over the last two decades or so, there has been many research carried out to understand the mechanics and spatial distribution of soil loss by water erosion and to a lesser extent of wind, piping and tillage erosion. The acquired knowledge helped the development of prediction tools useful to support decision-makers in both ex-ante and ex-post policy evaluation. In Europe, recent studies have modelled water, wind and tillage erosion at continental scale and shed new light on their geography. However, to acquire a comprehensive picture of soil erosion threats more processes need to be addressed and made visible to decision-makers. Since 1986, a small number of studies have pointed to an additional significant soil degradation process occurring when harvesting root and tuber crops. Field observations and measurements have shown that considerable amounts of soil can be removed from the field due to soil sticking to the harvested roots and the export of soil clods during the crop harvest. This study aims to scale up the findings of past studies, carried out at plot, regional, and national level, in order to obtain some preliminary insights into the magnitude of soil loss from cropland due to sugar beets and potatoes harvesting in Europe. We address this issue at European Union (EU) scale taking into account long-term (1975–2016) crop statistics of sugar beet and potato aggregated at regional and country levels.

During the period 2000–2016, sugar beets and potatoes covered in average ca. 4.2 million ha (3.81%) of the EU-28 arable land estimated at 110 million ha. The total Soil Loss by Crop Harvesting (SLCH) is estimated at ca. 14.7 million tons yr−1 in the EU-28. We estimate that ca. 65% of the total SLCH is due to harvesting of sugar beets and the rest as a result of potatoes harvesting.