Cleveland’s Iron Chef kicks off his new cookbook, “Carnivore,” with his typical flair: “I’m Michael Symon, and I love meat!”

The book’s title and opening pronouncement are no surprise to anyone familiar with Symon, as his culinary relationship with meat is a fully public love affair.

But his words a few paragraphs later did take me by surprise. “So first things first: Let’s agree to eat less… meat.”

What? Eat less meat?

Symon provides several reasons for this recommendation, which I’ll get to in a moment. But, as a freshwater scientist, let me first add one reason to cut back on meat that he doesn’t mention: conserving supplies of fresh water.

You may be asking, “What on earth does meat have to do with water?”

Well, on earth, the vast majority of water that people use is not for the direct, obvious things like drinking, showering, or washing clothes. Instead, the lion’s share (90 percent) of the total water consumed by people and their activities is the water used to produce food.

And when it comes to using water to make food, the “lion’s share” is greater than the “gazelle’s share.” What I mean is that a meat diet requires a lot more water than a vegetarian diet.

Take grain, for example. Growing a pound of food in the form of wheat requires 25 gallons of water. But cattle consume so much grain over their lives that producing a pound of beef uses approximately 100 times more water.

The unseen, but very real, water required to make food or other products is known as “virtual water.” British geographer John Allan introduced the concept of virtual water, for which he received the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize (akin to the Nobel for water management). Allan suggests that switching to a vegetarian diet is one of the most effective steps that people can take to reduce their water footprint. He estimates that a meat-eating American chugs 1300 gallons of virtual water a day, while a vegetarian sips about half that much.

But at this point I should get off my grain-eating high horse and make a confession: “I’m Jeff Opperman, and I love meat.” 

Which brings me to “Meatless Mondays.”

If eating meat consumes more water than eating vegetables, then a global trend toward reduced meat consumption will result in water savings. Because many people, myself included, find it hard to make the conversion to vegetarianism, “Meatless Mondays” are a straightforward choice that can allow you to reduce your meat consumption by 15 percent (assuming you don’t double up on “T-bone Tuesdays” or something).

If people broadly adopted a 15 percent reduction in meat consumption, there could be clear global benefits for water availability.

But what about the other six days? Meatless Mondays’ biggest benefits may hinge on whether the concept can prompt people to think more deliberately about their food choices — not just in terms of how meat affects water but over a broad range of issues — and then follow through.

However, if you’re like me, even deep and informed thought is unlikely to lead to widespread adoption of vegetarianism.

Which brings me to another admission. I edited Symon’s quote about eating less meat. The full quote may hold the key on those other six days and for how to translate informed thought into action: “Let’s agree to eat less — but better — meat.” 

Symon doesn’t mean better cuts or more expensive meat. Rather, he means meat that is both better sourced and better prepared.

Better sourced means buying meat from farms that use more sustainable and humane agricultural practices. This type of farming also produces benefits for water, as runoff from poor farming practices is one of the leading sources of water pollution worldwide. And Symon swears that more humanely raised “happy animals” make better-tasting meat.

But the real key to eating less meat may lie with better-prepared meat. By using high-quality meat (from those happy, clean-water-loving cows, for example) and then preparing it in the right balance with other fresh ingredients, you can increase your meat satisfaction while reducing meat consumption. This isn’t counterintuitive: which offers the better wine experience, a glass of Napa cabernet or two glasses of Night Train? (Yes, I realize that Night Train is rarely served in glasses).

Moving toward a diet of delicious meals with small amounts of really good meat can help overcome two dilemmas.

  1. I’ve often heard that the imperative to feed what will soon be 9 billion people on the planet means that meat from “happy cows” can only be a luxury of the relatively wealthy, with the rest of the world’s protein coming from intense production. But, the “small but delicious” meat diet may help reduce that problem.
  2. We all know that it’s really hard to change engrained habits, and so even just cutting back on the amount of meat we consume can be a challenge. Focusing on eating less but better meat holds great promise, including healthier bodies and a healthier planet. It also holds the promise of disguising the process of cutting back. The easiest way to give something up is to find a way to not really give it up.

So, try Meatless Mondays. Or go even further and do as Symon says: eat less meat overall, but choose meat that’s raised better and tastes better so that you don’t even notice you’ve cut back. And save some water along the way.

[Image: Bacon & broccolini salad. Image source: jules:stonesoup/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]

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