Photo source su-lin’s Flickr photostream
Millions of American families will be celebrating July 4 by grilling hamburgers and hot dogs before enjoying the evening’s fireworks. This is a good opportunity to think about the real cost of that burger. Yes, burgers can make an inexpensive and fast meal, but they are the most costly choice, considering the impact on our environment – not to mention your health.
A recent study by Swedish scientists estimates that the energy cost of a classic McDonald’s hamburger is more than three times that of a complete chicken dinner with potatoes, carrots and a glass of water. Indeed, the energy required to produce one pound of beef is equivalent to a gallon of gasoline. Yet the amount of energy provided to our bodies is essentially the same.
Beef production consumes more than twice the energy compared to chicken. Reducing use of “factory farms”, crowding animals in shelters, and bringing back traditional grazing farms, can reduce energy use and increase vegetation. The source of vegetables can also make a big difference. A can of imported canned beans requires four times the energy relative to beans produced locally. We can choose that healthier meal with local produce, saving considerable energy costs, but it is only part of the solution to meeting future demands on our planet.
Traditional agriculture is energy intensive and polluting, with use of chemical fertilizers and animal waste. Farming is possible, however, using minimal water – or seawater – and no soil. Creative alternatives are already being used and have proven to be productive – aquaponics and saline farming.
Aquaponics works by feeding crops year round using recirculating water from a fish tank or pond. A single tomato plant can produce more than 300 tomatoes using no soil! This method uses up to 90% less water than traditional farming. According to one study, a pound of fish can be produced with as little as six gallons of water. This approach has been proposed for vertical farming, making possible a “farm on every floor” of a high-rise building in which water can be recycled throughout the structure. This could reduce so-called “food deserts” – urban areas with little or no access to fresh produce.
Saline farming uses inland seawater ponds to support aquaculture. This has been used to produce tomatoes in the Negev desert in Israel, as well as vegetation such as mangroves and seaweed for animal feed, human food and biofuels.
Reducing food waste can also have a major impact on the environment. Did you know that about half of the food produced in the United States is thrown away, some 31 million tons per year? Food composting is an effective way to “recycle” food waste, yielding mulch for a vegetable garden, providing more food – a perfect cycle.
As you prepare to grill those burgers, go ahead and enjoy, but remember that our food choices have consequences far beyond our own health. And please – order only as much as you need and clean your plate!
A version of this article was published at NJ Voices.