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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.

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

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