At the age of 80, Dr. Lowell Novy, owner and operator of Novy Ranches, still does much of the manual labor on his ranch. He irrigates, pulls weeds, creates breeding pairs and uses skills honed as a veterinarian to monitor the health of his cattle. Though he doesn't consider himself an environmentalist, he's undeniably passionate about both conservation and animal welfare and loves working closely with his cows who he says are "perfect."
His take on life is surprisingly existential: He describes growing up on a Kansas farm during the Great Depression, and says "I came from nothing, and I could go back to nothing." When that day comes, he's asked to have his ashes dusted on the ranch, where he'll be at peace alongside his cattle.
And Dr. Novy has some unexpected advice for meat-lovers: eat less meat.
Located in Northern California just outside a tiny town called Gazelle, Dr. Novy produces meat that's 100 percent grass-fed, organic and "as clean as possible," and says eating smaller portions of high-quality meat has both nutritional and environmental advantages.
Grass-fed cows take more space and time to produce, which means they can't support our current appetite for beef. But this method is gentler on soil, more humane and results in more nutritious meat, containing higher levels of vitamin E, beta carotene and omega-3 fatty acids.
Our growing demand for beef means that much of today's meat industry values quantity over quality; U.S. meat packers have already produced nearly 5 percent more beef this year than they had at this time last year. The industry has grown rapidly as a result of technologies developed during Dr. Novy's lifetime, but he believes this growth has occurred at the expense of both human and environmental health.
"Sometimes progress comes with a price," he says.
In California, where meat and dairy farming account for 47 percent of statewide water usage, this price is felt even more keenly during periods of drought. Cattle farmers need water for animal hydration, pasture irrigation and meat processing—a total of 1,847 gallons of water for every pound of beef produced. The same amount of water could produce 3.5 pounds of chicken, or 71 pounds of tomatoes. Aside from almonds and pistachios, beef tops the list.
Perhaps because their livelihood depends on natural resources, cattle ranchers are both aware of the water problem and concerned about it. Dr. Novy fears water wars in the future if we keep depleting our aquifers, but he hasn't given up hope.
"There are many things we can do that assist in cutting down the amount of water that's used, and they rely on animals being in balance with the environment," he says. At his farm, this means using recycled animal waste as fertilizer. The result is that soil depth has increased and instead of watering every week, he now irrigates once or twice a month.
But not all cattle ranchers are as forward-thinking as Dr. Novy. With four major meatpacking companies controlling 85 percent of the beef sold in the U.S., profit often takes priority over environmental concerns. The result is that, on top of water use, large-scale cattle farming contributes significantly to rainforest degradation, global warming via methane release and bacterial resistance of antibiotics.
The burden of change may thus fall on consumers, and while people may not be willing to reduce their meat consumption, some are already making the sacrifice. Ryan Emmons, founder and CEO of Waiakea, a bottled water company that prioritizes ethics and sustainability, was researching ways to reduce his personal environmental impact when "I realized that, of the thousands of ways I could minimize my footprint, the most significant and, to be honest, the easiest way, was to stop eating red meat."
He's right, especially when it comes to water use. The Water Footprint Network's personal water footprint calculator shows that eliminating meat can reduce personal water use by 28 percent, or 261,266 gallons per year. Even without showering, watering the lawn or washing dishes, curbing domestic water use would only reduce a person's footprint by about 8 percent.
The choice to give up beef has allowed Emmons to observe values that align with his company's promise to its customers. He says the best way to get others on board is to have conversations with friends and family and remove the stigma that still plagues meat-free diets.
"We need to establish it as the cool norm," says Emmons. "If Meatless Monday becomes Meat Monday, as in the only day people eat red meat, the results would be measurable. I would love to see that."
The Meatless Monday initiative, led by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, challenges consumers to eliminate meat just one day a week. Though the campaign was launched by nutritionists, it was adopted internally by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 for sustainability reasons. An internal memo told employees that participating in the initiative was a "simple way to reduce your environmental impact when dining at our cafeterias," because meat production "wastes resources" and contributes to the greenhouse gas effect.
Backlash from industry groups, including the National Cattleman's Beef Association—which called the recommendation a "slap in the face"—prompted retraction of the memo less than two days later. The USDA can set a powerful example through its internal dietary decisions, but the agency appears reluctant to act for fear of alienating industry groups.
If Americans avoided meat one day a week, it would represent a significant reversal in a demand that's currently growing. If each person cut meat six days a week as Emmons suggested, national water use would drop by nearly one quarter—plus, we'd decrease greenhouse gas release and help protect valuable land. When we do indulge, sticking to local sources cuts down on transportation costs.
As Dr. Novy says, "We need to get serious about restoring our balance with the environment" if we want resources to last for generations to come.