Virtual water flows under projected climate, land use and population change: the case of UK feed barley and meat

David Oscar Yawson, Sushil Mohan, F.A. Armah, Tim Ball, Barry Mulholland, M.O. Adu, P.J. White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The flow of water through food commodity trade has been rationalized in the virtual water concept. Estimates of
future virtual water flows under climate, land use, and population changes could have instrumental value for
policy and strategic trade decisions. This paper estimated the virtual water flows associated with feed barley and
meat imports to the UK under projected climate, land use, and population changes from the 2030s to the 2050s.
The results show that future virtual water inflows associated with barley imports to balance domestic deficits are
larger than total volume of water used in domestic barley production in the UK. Mean virtual water associated
with total UK barley production ranged from 206 to 350 million m3. This is much less than the mean total virtual
water associated with barley imports (if total barley produced in the UK is used for feed), which ranged from 2.5
to 5.6 billion m3 in the 2030s to the 2050s for all land use and climate change scenarios. If domestic barley
production is distributed to the different end uses, the total virtual water inflows associated with imports to
balance domestic feed barley supply could be as high as 7.4 billion m3. Larger virtual water inflows (as high as 9.9
billion m3) were associated with feed barley equivalent meat imports. While the UK barley production would be
entirely green, imports of either barley or meat would result in large blue water inflows to the UK. Virtual water
inflows increased across the time slices for all emissions scenarios, indicating weak effectiveness of yield or
productivity gains to moderate virtual water inflows. While increase in yield and land allocated to barley production
should be adaptive targets, the UK needs to take policy and strategic actions to diversify trade partners
and shift imports away from countries where blue water flows can exacerbate existing or potential water stresses
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere03127
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jan 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2019 Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (


  • Virtual water
  • Climate change
  • Land use change
  • Feed barley demand
  • Meat consumption
  • Population growth
  • Environmental science
  • Agriculture


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