Skip Showers For Beef, a new grassroots project born of the California drought, acknowledges that giving up beef — a product that uses huge amounts of water — is hard. So the campaign’s creators have come up with a creative way for Californians to keep eating meat while reducing their water use: Just stop showering.
The project’s premise is a simple one — by the creators’ calculations, every four ounce hamburger requires roughly 450 gallons of water to produce. To offset those gallons, the average Californian would need to skip 26 showers.
“We’re not saying people should eat beef, we’re just saying people can eat beef, and here’s how,” Tom Bransford, co-founder of Skip Showers For Beef, told ThinkProgress. “If California as a state wants to keep producing beef, there’s a way they can do that — by everybody following a plan like this.”
The California cattle industry is the fifth largest in the state’s agricultural sector, bringing in $3.3 billion in revenue in 2012. In a country that consumed 24.1 billion pounds of beef in 2014, ranchers in California sent 177 million pounds of beef to commercial slaughter just in the month of April. According to a UC Davis study cited by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, it takes about 441 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. In a slightly higher estimate, the Water Footprint Network puts the amount of water needed to produce a pound of beef to closer to 1,845 gallons. By the beef industry’s estimates, California used more than 78 billion gallons of water to produce the beef slaughtered in April of 2014 — by the Water Footprint Network’s, it used over 326 billion gallons.
California also grows a huge amount of alfalfa as food for cows — which, though highly nutritious, is also extremely water-hungry. As California’s highest acreage crop, alfalfa is also its thirstiest — just 160 acres uses 240 million gallons of water per year. Part of that alfalfa goes to California’s dairy industry, which is the largest in the country. But in some parts of California, as much as 50 percent of the alfalfa that is grown is shipped overseas to land-poor countries like China. Researchers have calculated that when all the water required to grow the exported alfalfa is taken into account, California ships one hundred billion gallons worth of water overseas.
As California struggles through the fourth year of a now-historic drought, the state has tried to reign in water use across a number of sectors, from requiring a 25 percent cutback in municipal water use to accepting voluntary restrictions from some of the state’s oldest water rights holders. But the state’s agricultural sector — which uses 80 percent of the state’s water not set aside for environmental purposes — has been a popular lightning rod for criticism of California’s water management practices. Within the sector, the beef industry’s outsized water footprint has been particularly subject to criticism.
Skip Showers for Beef’s Bransford comes from a cattle family that has been ranching in California for three generations, and he isn’t immune to the criticism the beef industry is facing during the drought. But he classifies statistics that draw attention to how much water the beef industry uses as “fear mongering.”
“These numbers are frightening people,” he said. “What we wanted to do was counter that sort of statistic and say, ‘You can say this about the hamburger, but we’re going to tell you something really out of the box here, which is there is an alternative.’ If you want to keep eating beef, there’s an alternative.”
Launched early this week, the campaign is a mix of social media outreach and physical, grassroots lobbying — the project literally deployed people dressed in cow costumes to hand out pamphlets on the streets of Los Angeles. The project’s website also features information about how many showers one needs to skip to equalize the water footprint of various beef-based foods (a beef taco only requires missing 10 showers, while a 16-ounce steak will set you back more than three months’ worth) and creative ways to manage bodily smells without water (like baby wipes or a dirt bath). There’s also a short little video from a Los Angeles couple who claims to be living the shower-free lifestyle and enjoying guilt-free beef.
The campaign might seem like pure satire, but Bransford claims that it’s meant to be taken in earnest — though the humor inherent in the idea of skipping a month’s worth of showers to eat a single hamburger isn’t lost on him.
“We hope people laugh, we hope people enjoy it, and if they think its satire that’s their business,” Bransford said. “But we definitely think all the tools at our disposal can be used to combat this drought, and if humor is a part of that, it’s a part of that.”
To lend an air of credibility to the project, Bransford reached out to celebrities to help get out his message — which led to an interesting partnership between Skip Showers For Beef and Grammy-winning artist and noted vegan Moby.
“This isn’t about vegans versus carnivores,” Moby said in an email to ThinkProgress. “This is about making your choice a responsible one. This drought in California has already exceeded historic proportions, but most Americans just aren’t paying attention. We need to create more attention-grabbing campaigns like this to wake people the f*** up and get them making responsible choices.”
Conservation efforts have largely been focused, Moby continued, on consumer efforts — restaurants not offering water or people not flushing their toilets. But those choices are dwarfed by what he refers to as “the elephant in the room — or, as the case may be, the cow.”
“As much I endorse the vegan lifestyle, I know I can’t force everyone to put down their burgers,” Moby said. “But maybe they could at least skip some showers here and there so that we all have enough water to survive. That seems reasonable.”