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The impracticality of a cheeseburger

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What does the cheeseburger say about our modern food economy? A lot actually. Over the last several years, Waldo Jaquith set out to make a cheeseburger from scratch, to no avail:

Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.

That the cheeseburger – our delicious and comforting everyman food – didn’t exist one hundred years ago is a greasy, shiny example of all that is both right and wrong with our modern food economy.
Thanks to fertilizers, genetically-modified crops, concentrated farming operations, and global overnight shipping, much of the world was lifted out of starvation (but not malnutrition, ironically enough) because it could finally grow sufficient quantities of food with decreasing labor inputs.
But these same advances that allow food to be grown out of season and in all corners of the globe contribute to a whole host of environmental problems, from deforestation or nitrogen loading of water sources (and the resulting dead zones), to the insane quantities of water being consumed.
The cheeseburger as we know it would hardly exist without the backing of a global food manufacturing and shipping system behind it.
The “industrialization of food” as author Paul Roberts puts it, is a relentless cycle driven by razor thin price margins that force food processors to adopt more advanced techniques to produce even more food at lower prices.
This system will only be exacerbated as food demand increases. Very recently, David Tillman and Jason Hill of The University of Minnesota released a study anticipating that global food demand could double by 2050. It’s doubtful that our current, impractical food economy can sustain that demand.

A local burger joint in Austin, TX, purveyor of delicious impractical cheeseburgers.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Blackpriester 4:18 pm 12/8/2011

    This article is basically a plea to reduce world population.
    Well as it should be :) .

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  2. 2. mholm1818 10:31 am 12/9/2011

    The next time I eat a cheeseburger (a food I’ve loved without guilt since I was a toddler) I shall reflect on those poor agrarian peasants toiling away without benefit of such luxury, as well as the coming socio-economic collapse due to western extravagance. I will then take comfort that a (relatively) free market which has provided me with such a bounty will likely continue to do so.

    Instead of trying to bring the third world and its limitations to our doorsteps (as so many left-leaning intellectuals are wont to do when expounding on the gap between economies), perhaps it would be a wiser plan to bring the things which make our society (democracy and a free market) to theirs.

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  3. 3. bob_r 3:00 pm 12/9/2011

    Wait a second. I call shenanigans. There’s no reason it would take a full year and certainly no reason for three cows.

    Two cows at most, depending on how fast you want the burger. One cow gives birth to a bullock. This gives you milk from the mother and hamburger from the calf; you don’t need a lot of bulls around, so it is not unusual to cull bullocks or make them into steers. That’s why there are so many recipes for veal; you need to do something with the unwanted males.

    Depending on the type of cheese you want, it could be ready in a couple of days or a couple of months. In any event, cheese keeps – that’s kind of the point – so once you make it, it is available year round.

    The bun needs flour, butter, milk, yeast and an egg. Wheat and flour are both essentially non-perishable, so they are always around. Just make sure you have a cat to keep the mice away. You’ve already got the milk, so a portion becomes butter. Chickens lay eggs year round. And everyone kept a starter of yeast going.

    So we’re at maybe a month to age the cheese.

    Calves are born in the early spring, so your bullock would be available for slaughter when your lettuce is ready.

    Personally, I don’t care for tomatoes on my burgers. Ketchup and mustard keep indefinitely, so I’m ok there. I like onions on my burgers and some nice fries. And happily onions and potatoes keep year round. You can also can your tomatoes. They won’t be crisp and fresh, but you could have them if you insisted.

    The other reason the cheeseburger as we know it is so young is that hamburger buns themselves weren’t created until around 1916. Before that people just used bread. From the same page, the Mongols apparently made meat sandwiches in the 11th century. Cheese and bread have been around forever, so a cheese and meat sandwich could easily have been eaten.

    Given the required ingredients, there’s no way Europeans could have eaten a cheeseburger-like sandwich before the 16th century: tomatoes are new world plants. And they didn’t become widespread until almost the 17th century.

    In any event, there’s no way it takes a year to get a cheeseburger.

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  4. 4. masamune2823 9:01 pm 12/12/2011

    “The “industrialization of food” as author Paul Roberts puts it, is a relentless cycle driven by razor thin price margins that force food processors to adopt more advanced techniques to produce even more food at lower prices.

    This system will only be exacerbated as food demand increases. Very recently, David Tillman and Jason Hill of The University of Minnesota released a study anticipating that global food demand could double by 2050. It’s doubtful that our current, impractical food economy can sustain that demand.”

    Is it just me, or are these two paragraphs logically incompatible? If food demand goes up, shouldn’t the “razor-thin profit margin” dissapear as prices go up? If this is the case, why would food producers have any incentive of producing more food at lower prices. Wouldn’t the same amount of food at higher prices be more applicable to the current “impractical food economy?”

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  5. 5. davidwogan 11:18 pm 12/12/2011

    @masamune2823 Great point. The thin margins mean that as demand increases, producers must find a way to increase output while keeping costs down because the profits are small (at the producer level). The folks selling the end product (after all of the value has been added..) have larger margins, but because they usually buy products in such large quantities that they can dictate prices, hence the thin profit margins.

    To meet an increase in demand producers usually rely on concentrated feed operations, fertilizer, or other largely unsustainable or unsavory practices that are cheaper and allow them to reach the output required by their customers (stores, supermarkets, etc).

    I think of it as the Wal-Martization of food production.

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  6. 6. stevendcal 2:57 am 12/14/2011

    Even more impractical for the the cows:

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  7. 7. Deeman12 9:33 pm 01/18/2012

    My stomach fluid must have evolved, because I can digest a good cheeseburger easily. It is comfort food that is not necessarily health food.

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  8. 8. Veranth 9:10 pm 01/23/2012

    It may not be practical to build a cheeseburger working solo from scratch in the dead of winter, but is perfectly possible if you join with neighbors in the appropriate season. I checked two local community supported agriculture groups and confirmed that lettuce and hot house tomatoes are available spring through fall. Locally baked bread and hand-crafted cheese from a local dairy are available year-around. Local ranches sell custom-slaughtered beef from their own grass-fed cows. I have homemade ketchup and pickles (tomatoes and cucumbers from my own garden) on the shelf in my basement. Local stores sell bulk wheat and hand-powered grinding mills, but central milling of grain has been going on since the middle ages so why be such a purist? The point I am trying to make is that you can eat very well using locally produced food if you are willing to pay a bit more than supermarket industrial food prices.

    Further, when using local foods your diet naturally follows the seasons. One of my favorite winter dinners is a traditional Welsh “pasty” consisting of beef, carrots, potatoes, onions, and rutabaga wrapped in a butter and flour crust and baked. Only a few places sell these commercially, but they are easy to make and all the vegetables are good keepers in winter storage.

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  9. 9. danhicksbyron 8:57 am 01/27/2012

    With the exception of some of the spices and maybe the vinegar, making a cheeseburger with pickles and ketchup is something that many farm families around here (southern MN) could accomplish (and in fact, probably come close to doing some years without trying). A small farming community, working together, would find it even easier.

    However, I invite Mr Wogan and Mr Jaquith to try making a Scientific American.

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