“It’s important to know that small changes on the consumer side can help, and in fact may be necessary, to achieve big results in a production system,” says Robin White, Washington State University.

More specifically, consumer demand for more detailed meat labeling, says research by White and WSU economist Mike Brady.

According to the duo’s study, a 10 percent price hike on labeled items at the checkout line to insure an environmentally friendly meat product could conserve a significant amount of water – by saving 76 to 129 billion gallons of water annually by White’s estimations of the roughly 26 billion pound of beef produced in the U.S in 2013.

But how much information is too much information? Product labels have the ability to confuse and even mislead consumers, making a single feature label a subject to backlash and a challenge to put into full practice.  

“It is difficult to tease out a product’s true environmental impact from currently available labels,” said White. “Consumers may believe a label represents an environmental, health or animal welfare benefit but it’s difficult for them to really know.”

Cattle producers, more so cow-calf producers, are going to have to step up their efficiency game, says White. According to her, the cow-calf sector is the main component of water utilization in the beef industry chain. By giving producers a price premium derived from the labels, they will be more willing to embrace sustainable practices.

“This study demonstrated that consumers are willing,” says White. “Now we just need to connect the dots to accurately represent a product’s environmental impact in a way that is meaningful, understandable and attractive to consumers.”

For the full WSU report on the study, click here.