Opinion Columns & Blogs

During drought, don’t blame cheeseburgers

Cattle graze in a field near Bishop Peak in San Luis Obispo.
Cattle graze in a field near Bishop Peak in San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

California is dry. And while scientists disagree about how long the drought may last, all agree we must change our habits.

After four years of drought, it’s only natural that we’ve begun to scrutinize our consumption of such a precious resource.

You’ve heard the tips:

Take shorter showers.

Turn off the tap while you brush your teeth.

Consider replacing your thirsty lawn with river rock xeriscaping.

Stop eating cheeseburgers. Wait, what? It’s true. Some “water conservationists” have begun calling for a boycott of beef in an effort to save water. Followers of the trend have even written a few letters to the editor of The Tribune.

California’s beef, dairy and tree nut industries have come under fire for the amount of water they use in production. While it is true they use a significant amount of water, they are also extremely significant contributors to our state and county economies.

The United States’ leading supplier of dairy is California, with profits surpassing $7 billion in 2012. California also supplies the nation with two-thirds of its nuts and fruits, 90 percent of its wine and is the fourth largest supplier of beef.

In San Luis Obispo County, the cattle industry is the third largest agricultural contributor behind wine grapes and strawberries. It accounts for more than 10 percent of our agricultural revenue and generated over $96 million in 2013. The agriculture industry in San Luis Obispo County paid more than $45 million in taxes to the county, providing 10 percent of the county’s annual budget.

Gov. Jerry Brown considered these factors when he exempted the agriculture industry from his mandatory 25 percent reductions earlier this year. He knew the industry employed more than a quarter-million workers in California (more than 20,000 of those in San Luis Obispo County) and was substantial to our economy.

Economic reasoning isn’t always enough to dissuade critics, however.

Special interest groups in California are attempting to capitalize on our drought by not letting our crisis go to waste. They use the drought to create a scapegoat out of beef cattle, even if they have to skew the numbers to their favor.

When studying the “water footprint” that beef cattle create, four components are typically taken into consideration:

1. Water the animal drinks.

2. Water used to irrigate pastureland that cattle graze.

3. Water used to grow crops cattle are fed.

4. Water used in processing beef.

Even when using these determining factors, there is room for debate.

Critics of the California beef industry like to use statistics that include alfalfa production, which is a tremendously thirsty crop that is historically fed to cows. Using this data skews the numbers dramatically in their favor. This practice, however, is on the decline.

In reality, the beef industry has made significant strides in reducing its water footprint. More and more cattle are being grain-finished to reach market, using 76 percent less water than grass and alfalfa-finished cattle.

Beef industry critics do not take these new figures into account. In total, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Animal Science found the amount of water used to raise beef has been reduced by 12 percent compared to 30 years ago; that number will only continue to grow as technology and innovation increases.

The fact is, both points are irrelevant to ending our drought. As California is the fourth-leading cattle producer in the nation, our cattle will always have a market. And when we stop eating cheeseburgers, other less drought-conscious states in the United States will pick up the slack. Our beef industry will not die because we’ve forsaken tri-tip sandwiches and In-N-Out Burger.

Further, asking people to stop eating beef is demonizing a false enemy. Beef cattle did not cause the drought — a lack of rain and snow did. Asking people to stop consuming beef to help preserve water externalizes blame, attacks a vital economic industry and creates an inefficient and abstract solution to a problem.

Even Gov. Brown discussed attacks on beef at a highly publicized drought interview Tuesday.

He said: “When people say, ‘Stop the almonds, stop the steak, stop this, stop that,’ you’re starting to pick and choose in the invasive way that government isn’t good at, and it would be impossible to forge a consensus.”

Solutions to our drought lay in education.

When educating, broad and abstract messaging campaigns are hardly ever successful. It is through concise delivery of a refined message that people remember to change their routines in their daily lives.

The Templeton Community Services District has been educating residents and offers rebates in its district newsletter. Those efforts have helped cut water use by 26 percent since 2013, proving that education campaigns work.

Lastly, we all should be happy to be called water conservatives.

Two of the pillars of conservative ideology (the political kind of conservative, that is) are “personal freedom and responsibility.” These apply perfectly to water conservation.

We must all take personal responsibility to reduce our water use in our everyday lives. The successful reduction Templeton found came from the work of each Templeton family.

And as for personal freedom, this 4th of July I’d like to enjoy eating my cheeseburger in peace.