Nearly Half of the Farmland in Europe Faces Erosion Factors

Soil assessment and conservation measures are increasingly important due to climate change. Good farming practices could reduce erosion caused by tillage, water and wind.

Andalusia, Spain
By Paolo DeAndreis
Nov. 10, 2022 14:32 UTC
Andalusia, Spain

The cumu­la­tive impact of tillage, har­vest­ing oper­a­tions and water and wind ero­sion have been eval­u­ated for the first time at a European scale to deter­mine the con­se­quences of these fac­tors on arable land.

A new report pub­lished in Nature Sustainability shows that almost half of European farm­land face at least one dri­ver of soil ero­sion.

According to the European Union Joint Research Center (JRC), which authored the study, there are about 100 mil­lion hectares of arable land in the E.U.

See Also:Study Sheds Light on Environmental Impact of Global Food Production

Our esti­mates show that 43 mil­lion hectares are vul­ner­a­ble to a sin­gle dri­ver of ero­sion, 15.6 mil­lion hectares to two dri­vers and 0.81 mil­lion hectares to three or more dri­vers,” the researchers wrote. About 3.2 mil­lion hectares of arable land are vul­ner­a­ble to the pos­si­ble inter­ac­tion of increased flood, drought, water and wind ero­sion.”

The study also found that soil dis­place­ment by water is the most sig­nif­i­cant form of ero­sion, rep­re­sent­ing 51 per­cent of the total dis­place­ment and involv­ing 57 per­cent of the total area.

Soil dis­place­ment due to water ero­sion in the E.U. is esti­mated to be equal to a 1‑centimeter dis­place­ment of soil annu­ally from an area twice the size of Belgium,” the researchers wrote.

The research also iden­ti­fied tillage as the sec­ond-largest dri­ver of soil dis­place­ment, account­ing for 36 per­cent of the whole. Wind ero­sion and crop har­vest­ing came in right after, with 10 and 2.7 per­cent, respec­tively.

Understanding and assess­ing soil ero­sion is cru­cial to the future of food pro­duc­tion and the envi­ron­ment, as the soil is the foun­da­tion of agri­cul­ture and ecosys­tems.

According to the JRC, changes in soil qual­ity affect the pro­vi­sion of food, water sup­ply and reg­u­la­tion, and car­bon seques­tra­tion. Good soil is a major micro­bial gene pool from which we extract bio­med­ical resources; lower soil qual­ity puts this process in ques­tion.”

Soil ero­sion results in the loss of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity, reduces soil sta­bil­ity, changes soil struc­ture and reduces soil biol­ogy capac­ity and water reten­tion.

Erosion also results in the loss of soil nutri­ents and impairs all major func­tions of soil, not only its pro­duc­tiv­ity,” the researchers noted.

The JRC researchers said the study con­sti­tutes a set of pre­dic­tions that should serve as the basis for devel­op­ing an effi­cient strat­i­fied mon­i­tor­ing net­work and inform­ing tar­geted mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies under the Common Agricultural Policy 2023 – 2027.”

The Common Agricultural Policy is an E.U. sub­sidy pro­gram designed to sup­port farm­ers and improve agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity.”

To coun­ter­act soil ero­sion, the researchers rec­om­mended reduc­ing tillage inten­sity and increas­ing veg­e­ta­tive cover on arable land. These actions are ben­e­fi­cial to the func­tional agro-bio­di­ver­sity of the farm­ing sys­tem,” they wrote.

Following these rec­om­men­da­tions and other good farm­ing prac­tices might reduce tillage ero­sion by 27 per­cent, water ero­sion by 20 per­cent and wind ero­sion by 9 per­cent.

The researchers said soil assess­ment and con­ser­va­tion mea­sures would become increas­ingly impor­tant due to cli­mate change.

The JRC said the cur­rent soil ero­sion assess­ment is the first of its kind and is con­sid­ered a basis for devel­op­ing a com­pre­hen­sive mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem of soil health on the con­ti­nent.

Europe is mov­ing toward a more vig­or­ous hydro­log­i­cal cycle which will exac­er­bate the ero­sion impact… future geog­ra­phy and rates of ero­sion may be sub­stan­tially altered by cli­mate change,” they wrote.

The road to the sus­tain­able, car­bon-neu­tral and bio­di­ver­sity-friendly sys­tem of agri­cul­ture advo­cated for in the E.U. Green Deal goes through a the­matic strat­egy for soil pro­tec­tion from mul­ti­ple con­cur­rent ero­sion processes,” the researchers added.

The JRC said there are cur­rently only a hand­ful of soil ero­sion sur­vey pro­grams world­wide, notably the United States National Cooperative sur­vey and the Chinese National General Survey Program on Soil and Water Conservation.

The new research will be part of the E.U. soil strat­egy for 2030” enacted last year to cope with land degra­da­tion.

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