Global patterns in human consumption of net primary production

Abstract

The human population and its consumption profoundly affect the Earth's ecosystems1,2. A particularly compelling measure of humanity's cumulative impact is the fraction of the planet's net primary production that we appropriate for our own use3,4. Net primary production—the net amount of solar energy converted to plant organic matter through photosynthesis—can be measured in units of elemental carbon and represents the primary food energy source for the world's ecosystems. Human appropriation of net primary production, apart from leaving less for other species to use, alters the composition of the atmosphere5, levels of biodiversity6, energy flows within food webs7 and the provision of important ecosystem services8. Here we present a global map showing the amount of net primary production required by humans and compare it to the total amount generated on the landscape. We then derive a spatial balance sheet of net primary production ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ for the world. We show that human appropriation of net primary production varies spatially from almost zero to many times the local primary production. These analyses reveal the uneven footprint of human consumption and related environmental impacts, indicate the degree to which human populations depend on net primary production ‘imports’ and suggest policy options for slowing future growth of human appropriation of net primary production.

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Figure 1: Spatial distribution of the annual NPP resources required by the human population.

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Acknowledgements

We thank K. Carney, N. Christiansen, G. Daily, R. Defries, J. Hellmann, J. Hicke, G. Orians, N. Sanders, P. Vitousek, P. Matson and P. Ehrlich for comments, C. Tucker for providing satellite data, and G. Asrar, J. Kaye, G. Gutman and D. Wickland of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration for financial support.

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Correspondence to Marc L. Imhoff.

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Imhoff, M., Bounoua, L., Ricketts, T. et al. Global patterns in human consumption of net primary production. Nature 429, 870–873 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02619

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