Human demand for animal products has risen markedly over the past 50 years with important environmental impacts. Dairy and cattle production have disproportionately contributed to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and land use, while crop demands of more intensive systems have increased fertilizer use and competition for available crop calories. At the same time, chicken and pig production has grown more rapidly than for ruminants, indicating a change in the environmental burden per animal calorie (EBC) with time. How EBCs have changed and to what extent resource use efficiency (RUE), the composition of animal production and the trade of feed have played a role in these changes have not been examined to date. We employ a calorie-based perspective, distinguishing animal calorie production between calories produced from feedcrop sources—directly competing with humans for available calories—and those from non-feed sources—plant biomass unavailable for direct human consumption. Combining this information with data on agricultural resource use, we calculate EBCs in terms of land, GHG emissions and nitrogen. We find that EBCs have changed substantially for land (−62%), GHGs (−46%) and nitrogen (+188%). Changes in RUE (e.g., selective breeding, increased grain-feeding) have been the primary contributor to these EBC trends, but shifts in the composition of livestock production were responsible for 12%–41% of the total EBC changes. In addition, the virtual trade of land for feed has more than tripled in the past 25 years with 77% of countries currently relying on virtual land imports to support domestic livestock production. Our findings indicate that important tradeoffs have occurred as a result of livestock intensification, with more efficient land use and emission rates exchanged for greater nitrogen use and increased competition between feed and food. This study provides an integrated evaluation of livestock's impact on food security and the environment.
Historical trade-offs of livestock's environmental impacts
Environmental Research Letters
Article published in Environmental Research Letters
Article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America