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close this bookCritical Consumption Trends and Implications - Degrading Earth's Ecosystems (WRI, 1999, 72 pages)
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View the documentPreface
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentExecutive Summary
Open this folder and view contentsI. Food Consumption and Disruption of the Nitrogen Cycle
Open this folder and view contentsII. Wood Fiber Consumption and the World's Forests
Open this folder and view contentsIII. Fish Consumption and Aquatic Ecosystems
View the documentAbout the Authors
View the documentWorld Resources Institute

Executive Summary


Natural resources - fuels, materials, water and food commodities - form the basis of all human activity. They are the essential inputs to both subsistence economies and the most advanced technological societies. Resource consumption in the world is rising rapidly, driven by population growth and rising wealth. Technological change and urbanization also fuel consumption, by creating new patterns of human needs and aspirations. In recent years, much has been written about the environmental and social impacts of modern consumption patterns. Many studies have focused on the environmental damage caused by the consumption patterns typical of industrial economies - high fossil fuel use, polluting emissions and waste volumes. Others detail the environmental degradation which can be induced by poverty - soil erosion and desertification, deforestation, water contamination. Developmental studies have highlighted the inequality of consumption levels between industrialized and developing countries, and between rich and poor inhabitants within countries.

This report adopts a different perspective, and seeks to place consumption at the center of policy-making for socio-economic development and ecological sustainability. Through a survey of broad resource use trends over the past 30 to 40 years, it demonstrates how both the level and distribution of consumption have changed radically in many parts of the world. By presenting the best available forecasts of consumption over the next ten to twenty years, it makes clear just how much more we will have to coax the earth to provide. Past and future consumption trends are then placed in their environmental context: what pressures have our consumption habits placed on the earth's capacity to provide the goods and absorb the wastes? What emerges from this analysis is that fundamental changes are taking place in global biological processes. Our attention has perhaps been focused too much at the local and regional level - on specific polluting emissions, or loss of specific habitats and species - and too little on whole ecosystems. Our understanding of how complex ecosystems function remains relatively limited, but the evidence of serious disruption is now widespread. Chronic, human-induced imbalances in major biological systems - for example, nutrient cycling, inter-species relationships and food chains - are more insidious than acute incidents of pollution or other damage. Their consequences, however, may be much harder to reverse, and more serious for the developmental and security prospects of every country.

Consumption Trends and Ecosystem Impacts

The report examines consumption trends, and the associated impacts on natural ecosystems, for three key resources - food (cereals and meat), wood fiber, and fish. These resources have been selected because they are of universal importance and interest to countries in all geographic regions and income groups. Additionally, consumption of all three is rising everywhere and demand is being fuelled in part by basic needs such as nutrition and literacy, not merely by "lifestyle" preferences. Finally, none of these resources is easily substituted. Demand management and technological advances can therefore do only so much to slow demand: consumption will inevitably increase in coming years.

Cereals and Meat

World cereal consumption has more than doubled in the last 30 years, while meat consumption has tripled since 1961 and is increasing at a linear rate. The agricultural success story is that rising demand has been met; more people are now better fed than they were a generation ago. One of the many environmental consequences, only now becoming clear, is significant disruption of the global nitrogen cycle. In the past half century, the application of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers world-wide has increased more than ninefold, and the number of livestock has more than doubled since 1960. Fertilizers and animal manures have increased and concentrated, respectively, the amount of nitrogen entering soils, freshwater and marine ecosystems. Human activity has actually doubled the natural annual rate of nitrogen fixation, and by far the largest single cause is agriculture.

Most agricultural experts believe that increasing global demand for cereals and meat can be met, and forecast that grain production will rise by about 15 percent by 2010, and by 25 to 40 percent by 2020. More fertilizer will be needed to produce the additional cereals and fodder crops for animals. Looking ahead just 12 years, if current practices persist, global fertilizer consumption will increase by at least 55 percent by 2010. In some under-fertilized regions, such as South America and Africa, this could be an entirely positive development. In others, notably parts of South and East Asia, nitrogen saturation will approach the levels already experienced in northwestern Europe and parts of the United States. The incidence and severity of nitrate contamination of drinking water, ground-level ozone formation, crop damage, forest die-back, and damage to coastal fisheries from algal blooms ("red" and "brown" tides) can all be expected to increase dramatically.

Wood fiber

Global wood consumption has risen by 64 percent since 1961. Demand for fuelwood and charcoal rose by nearly 80 percent and more than half the world's wood fiber supply is now burned as fuel. Consumption of sawlogs, veneers, pulp for paper-making and other industrial forms of wood fiber rose by nearly 50 percent over the same period. Rising demand for industrial wood has encouraged widespread planting of industrial plantations and, today, they account for nearly 25 percent of supply. However, the bulk of wood fiber for all uses still comes from old-growth or secondary-growth forests. Demand for wood fiber is a major, though by no means the only, cause of deforestation. Commercial logging has accelerated the clearance of old-growth tropical hardwood forests; since 1960, more than one-fifth of the world's entire tropical forest cover has been removed. Logging is also the primary cause of conversion of old-growth coniferous forests in temperate regions to managed forests with more uniform structure and lower biodiversity.

Demand for industrial wood fiber is projected to rise by between 20 and 40 percent by 2010. Most forestry analysts expect that demand will be met at the global level, but that regional shortfalls will occur, leading to higher fiber prices. If current patterns of production are not changed, pressure of demand will result in supplies being drawn from the world's last remaining "frontier" forests. The tropical forests of the Amazon and equatorial Africa and the boreal forests of Siberia and Canada will not survive in their current form. Projections of future woodfuel consumption range more widely, due to poor data and uncertainties over the difference between what people actually consume and what they would consume, if their needs were fully met. Consumption might rise by only 1 percent by 2010, if supplies are constrained by lack of availability. Consumption could more than double, if constraints were removed. Many studies predict that critical shortages will affect parts of Africa and Asia, unless more effort is made to establish woodfuel plantations.

Fish and Fishery Products

Consumption offish and fishery products (such as fish meal and fish oils) has risen by 240 percent since 1960 and more than fivefold since 1950. Intensive fishing effort has led to the collapse of many important commercial fisheries in the northern hemisphere and pressures are now mounting on southern fisheries. Overfishing, pollution, and disturbance of marine habitats have reduced the productivity of many coastal zones, where some 90 percent of the world's fish harvest is caught. Marine harvests offish appear to have peaked and now account for a declining share of total production. Aquaculture, or fish farming, has become increasingly important and now provides more than one-quarter of all fish destined for human consumption.

Demand for food fish is projected to increase by at least 34 per cent, and probably by nearer 50 per cent, by 2010. Analysts are virtually unanimous that this level of consumption cannot be met if current production trends continue unchanged. The world's few remaining productive fishing grounds will be fished out in their turn and total marine harvests are expected to fall from today's levels. Aquaculture production, even under the most optimistic growth projections, would not be able to fill the gap. Scarcity will cause fish prices to rise and encourage more international trade. This, in turn, will favor subsidized industrial fishing fleets which supply relatively wealthy markets, at the expense of small-scale, subsistence fishers. Nearly one billion people, most of them in developing countries, currently depend on fish for their primary source of protein. This source is likely to dwindle away within a generation. The outlook for food security and employment among low-income coastal countries could hardly be more serious.

Opportunities for Change

These three examples from the agriculture, forestry, and fisheries sectors demonstrate how current practices are undermining the biological systems which support key renewable resources, exploiting them in such a way that potentially everlasting supplies are being depleted. Other examples could have been chosen: fossil fuel use is changing the global climate, water engineering projects have profoundly altered freshwater habitats. In many cases, wasteful, inefficient or short-sighted production and consumption patterns are putting at risk whole ecosystems, disrupting their normal functioning and reducing their potential productivity, now and for the future. This is perhaps the most unsustainable aspect of human economic activity today.

This report also looks at the possibility of change through policy reform. Policy interventions can be made at the point of resource production, or at any point in the processing and distribution chain, or they can target end-use behavior by the consumer. The report reflects these differences among, and within, the sectors under discussion and suggests where policy interventions might be most effective in each case.

Policy Directions for the Next Decade

In the case of food consumption, some reduction of consumer demand for meat might be possible, particularly where per capita consumption is high enough to generate some health concerns. Greater public awareness of over-fishing and destructive fishing practices could influence which fish are consumed and how they are caught, at least among wealthy consumers. Equally, consumer concerns over tropical deforestation could further develop the market for sustainably produced hardwood products.

The wood fiber sector offers considerable scope for efficiency improvements, if regulatory and economic incentives are applied. Technological advance has already improved the efficiency of fiber utilization and enabled some substitution of non-wood materials. The proportion of wood fiber which is recovered during processing and manufacture, and the percentage of paper made from recycled fiber have risen impressively over the past 30 years and could rise further.

However, the drivers behind rising food, fish, and fiber consumption are in large part fundamental: a growing population's need for adequate nutrition and literacy (paper consumption has risen faster than any other use of wood), energy, and shelter. Woodfuels and construction timber can certainly be substituted but not, realistically, within the time frame covered in this report. Grain and fish for direct human consumption can hardly be substituted at all, especially in rural economies. The demand curves projected for the next decade are not likely to be altered much. Given this reality, the report urges a reorientation of production methods.

Agriculture: Currently, well under half the nitrogen applied to crops world-wide in fertilizer is actually utilized by growing plants. The rest becomes a pollutant, wasting farmers' money and imposing heavy costs on society in terms of clean-up requirements and lost productivity. Animal manure, rather than substituting for inorganic fertilizers, is increasingly added to them, or simply disposed of as a waste product. Economic and regulatory incentives for more timely and efficient use, research which improves understanding of fertilizer application and uptake by crops, agricultural extension and outreach programs which encourage farm management practices to reduce nitrogen run-off are all urgently needed so that food production can rise without further contamination of soils, water supplies, and coastal zones.

Forestry: In theory, the world's entire current demand for industrial wood could be met from intensively-managed plantations covering an area equivalent to less than 10 percent of today's natural forests - even after allowing for extensive environmental protection measures. In practice, a very substantial part of the forecast increase in consumption could be supplied from plantations, if legal protection of old-growth forests were strengthened, forestry management standards were tightened, thus raising costs, and financial incentives for plantation establishment, and good management, were increased. Community plantations to provide fuelwood have proved successful in a number of developing countries and represent the most realistic short-term policy option until rising wealth enables the transition from woodfuels to commercial alternatives.

Fisheries: Again in theory, the world's oceans are estimated to be capable of providing a sustainable annual fish catch 17 per cent, or even 24 per cent, higher than 1996 levels. This can be achieved only if international agreements to protect declining fish stocks are honored and if individual countries improve the management of their national fisheries. The capacity of the global fishing fleet is currently at least 30 per cent, and possibly 150 per cent, greater than is required to catch the current annual harvest. Economic packages which phase out incentives to enter, or continue in, an over-capitalized industry must be implemented more widely, along with adequate compensation for fishers who abandon the profession. Substantial technical and financial cooperation among governments representing industrial and artisanal fishing interests will be required. Equally importantly, stronger pollution control and conservation measures should be enforced to safeguard marine habitats, particularly fish spawning grounds in coastal areas.


It is notable that, in thinking about more rational ways of meeting demands for key natural resources in the future, it is necessary to think about the entire use cycle, from production to final consumption and disposal. It is also notable that no line can easily be drawn between the developed and developing countries. Consumption is rising in every major world region, although at different rates; ecosystem damage is occurring in many regions, although it has progressed further in some; the economic and social impacts are being felt by people everywhere, either directly in their daily livelihood or, less directly, in the form of higher prices and reduced quality of life.

The scenarios for 2010 presented in the report are daunting. At the same time, they are not inevitable. The purpose of this report is to suggest that rising consumption needs can be met, but that they should be met in more imaginative ways. The possible solutions set out in the following pages utilize, for the most part, familiar policy concepts and currently available knowledge and technologies. Imagination is required only to summon the will to put them into effect. Attempting to meet the world's future consumption by simply doing "more of the same" will accelerate ecosystem degradation and will undermine the very productivity we are striving to increase.