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Consequences of Increased Global Meat Consumption on the Global Environment: Trade in virtual water and nutrients


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Principal Investigator
  • Professor in Environmental Biology, Emeritus
Principal Investigator
Senior Fellow
  • Professor, Earth System Science
  • Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute
  • Associate Professor, by courtesy, Economics
Principal Investigator
Senior Fellow, Emeritus
  • Professor, Economics, Emeritus
  • Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute

Meat production is projected to double by 2020 due to increased incomes, population growth, and rising per capita global consumption of meat. In order to meet this demand, industrialized animal production systems are proliferating and grain production for feed is expanding. These trends will have major consequences on the global environment-affecting the quality of the atmosphere, water, and soil due to nutrient overloads; impacting marine fisheries both locally and globally through fish meal use; and threatening human health, as, for example, through excessive use of antibiotics.

Senior fellows Harold Mooney, Rosamond Naylor, and Walter Falcon, along with a team of international scholars, including economists, ecologists, and livestock specialists, are conducting a global accounting of these trends, connections, and projections-focusing specifically on how the global expansion of meat production and trade is affecting "virtual" environmental resources in places widely separated in space.

The concept of "virtual" resources refers to the resources necessary to produce feed grains and other feed inputs or meat that is subsequently shipped to some place distant from where it was originally produced. The result is that the receiving nation gets the benefit of the end product without incurring the resource and environmental costs of producing the food, while the producing nation pays these non-market costs. Industrialized livestock systems depend heavily on cereal grains and have large impacts on the transfer of "virtual" water and nutrient resources both in the grain-producing and the grain-receiving and meat-producing nations.

By developing a global accounting system, Mooney, Naylor and Falcon will be able to suggest policies that ameliorate the negative aspects of these developments and position themselves to address the multiple consequences of industrialized animal production systems. Progress in this targeted area will add a vital piece to understanding "Industrialized Animal Production Systems"-an initiative supported by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, the German national Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, and the International Council for Science.