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See Inside February 2012

The Impracticality of a Cheeseburger

A fast-food staple reveals the pros and cons of industrialization

What does the cheeseburger say about our modern food economy? A lot, actually. Over the past several years blogger Waldo Jaquith (http://waldo.jaquith.org) 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,” he writes. “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.”

That the cheeseburger—our delicious and comforting everyman food—didn’t exist 100 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 and nitrogen loading of water sources (and the resulting dead zones) to the insane quantities of water being consumed. 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. Recently David Tilman 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.

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