Skip Showers for Beef? Try Less and Better Meat

Did you hear about the new nonprofit advocating for water-conscious Californians to cut back on showers so they can still enjoy beef? Beef has a high water footprint so the logic almost makes sense, though the idea is not very hygenic. Well, it turns out SkipShowersForBeef.com was all a clever ruse by infamous corporate pranksters the Yes Men. I mean, I guess it was hard imagining Jason and Kiki from the promo video being the types who would skip showers for a month just so they could chow down on one burger (just one). Regardless, CBS and other news outlets covered the project, and even Governor Brown threw his support behind less-thirsty veggie burgers.

We like that this stunt gave even more coverage to the crucial links between water resources and our food system, but there are some critically important distinctions to add to this conversation.

First, if you still want to follow the Skip Showers for Beef logic then there are ways to have your burger and shower, too. Remember this mantra: less meat, better meat.

If you stick with pasture-raised beef you'll still have a higher water footprint than, let's say, Moby, but your impact on the environment will be significantly less than eating meat produced in a resource-intensive and environmentally-harmful industrial system.

Less meat is straightforward: Cut back on how much meat you eat and you can still get a few guilt-free morning showers in every week. But what do we mean by "better" meat? If you're going to barbecue some burgers, look for pasture-raised beef. Beef has a high water footprint in general, whether it’s industrial or pasture-raised. However, pasture-raised or grass-fed livestock depend more on rainfall, and if their waste is well managed, it helps to fertilize grazing fields for the future. Animals raised in the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) system start on pasture but are moved to feedlots, where they depend more on irrigated grains for feed and their waste must be contained in huge manure ponds, which often leak into groundwater, or spill into nearby waterways. Both types of beef require large volumes of water, but industrial beef has the added insult of pollution, which requires even more water to dilute. The impacts of industrial beef and meat production go beyond just water pollution and include threats to air quality, public health, animal welfare, farmworkers and rural communities.

All really good reasons to shift to more local, sustainable food systems that emphasize smart water use and local and regional production, so they can better withstand regional challenges like California's agricultural concentration in the midst of drought. One of the fundamental principles of sustainable agriculture is the protection and conservation of our scarce natural resources – including water. Let's look toward organic farmers, who go even further to protect water supplies by using methods that conserve water while also protecting rivers, streams and aquifers from pollution.

If you’d rather eat less but better beef but are not sure how to tell the difference, seek out the Animal Welfare Approved label, which goes beyond even organic certification and is widely considered the gold standard in meat, dairy and eggs. Or search for farms, markets and retailers of sustainably produced food in our Eat Well Guide.

If you stick with pasture-raised beef you'll still have a higher water footprint than, let's say, Moby, but your impact on the environment will be significantly less than eating meat produced in a resource-intensive and environmentally-harmful industrial system.

The most effective way for Californians to keep water in the state's reservoirs today is to cut back on the water they use directly from the tap, or showerhead of course. But our food choices, no matter where we live, will have a much bigger impact on how the nation's water is used in the future. So if you eat a pasture-raised burger, go ahead and skip a few showers (don't forget the dry shampoo!) and consider it a down payment on future water savings.

Curious about your overall water footprint? Check out our Water Footprint Calculator and get ready for a surprise!

Image Gourmet Farm free range burgers by Jeremy Keith on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.