Forecasting potential global environmental costs of livestock production 2000-2050

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Oct 26;107(43):18371-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1004659107. Epub 2010 Oct 4.


Food systems--in particular, livestock production--are key drivers of environmental change. Here, we compare the contributions of the global livestock sector in 2000 with estimated contributions of this sector in 2050 to three important environmental concerns: climate change, reactive nitrogen mobilization, and appropriation of plant biomass at planetary scales. Because environmental sustainability ultimately requires that human activities as a whole respect critical thresholds in each of these domains, we quantify the extent to which current and future livestock production contributes to published estimates of sustainability thresholds at projected production levels and under several alternative endpoint scenarios intended to illustrate the potential range of impacts associated with dietary choice. We suggest that, by 2050, the livestock sector alone may either occupy the majority of, or significantly overshoot, recently published estimates of humanity's "safe operating space" in each of these domains. In light of the magnitude of estimated impacts relative to these proposed (albeit uncertain) sustainability boundary conditions, we suggest that reining in growth of this sector should be prioritized in environmental governance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Husbandry / trends*
  • Animals
  • Biomass
  • Climate Change
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / trends
  • Ecosystem
  • Environment
  • Food Chain
  • Food Supply
  • Humans
  • Livestock*
  • Public Policy
  • Reactive Nitrogen Species / analysis


  • Reactive Nitrogen Species