High Octane Burgers


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.

Today’s world population is 6,946,179,640, and is predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050. How can our planet support so many people? The choices that we make today will determine the answer.

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.


  1. #1 Tenerife Property
    July 2, 2011

    I found you article very interesting and wondered why more is not published about the environmental cost of producing food.

    Personally I am a great beleiver in biodiesel fuels which can be produced from Algae growth. Although Algae is not a human food it could be used to feed animals after the oil has been extracted. With a bit of research I am sure it could be used for fertilisation or perhaps even human foodstuffs.

    Under the right conditions Algae can double it’s volume in 24 hours something which a cow cannot do!

  2. #2 Sam
    July 2, 2011

    Now that was an interesting post! I have never thought about McDonald burgers in terms of energy expenditure. Personally if we as Americans could learn to push back the plate sooner we would see our obesity rates drop and more food become available. I take pgx fiber now before a meal to reduce my consumption. It works. Again, good writing.

  3. #3 nancy brownlee
    July 3, 2011

    I never get this. How do they figure this? I mean, is the supposed cost to raise the animal balanced against what you get back in energy from the animal? The meat, hides, fertilizer, soap, hair, manure,etc. from the cow? If the real cost of a fast food burger is really higher than that of an entire chicken dinner, why isn’t the cash cost to the consumer higher? I mean if it costs that much more to produce? It doesn’t make any sense.

  4. #4 nancy brownlee
    July 3, 2011

    I left out- doesn’t the increased energy cost come at an increased $$$ cost? It’s paid for somewhere.

  5. #5 rork
    July 5, 2011

    Nancy: Their figures look like it takes twice as much energy input to make about the same output in calories of chicken and cow. It might be close to correct that, averaged over the entire animal, cow costs twice what chicken does. It still can turn out that the less expensive bits of cow cost about the same or less than not-the-worst-bits of chicken. It’s an issue of how much of the energy input into the cow should be accounted as producing ass muscles, and how much for making tenderloin – they are using per-pound-of-animal accounting.

    Some other factors that might be small effects: That irrigation that the public pays for rather than the farmer is used more to make cow than chicken (would be my guess).
    If we had higher fossil fuel taxes, the change in prices might be interesting too.

  6. #6 nancy brownlee
    July 5, 2011

    Thanks, rork – I do appreciate the answer. I think I have to dig around and try to find a more thorough and detailed production cost accounting.

  7. #7 Chloe Lewis
    July 6, 2011

    There are lots of possible differences, e.g., even if you feed cows and chickens the same food (probably corn…) one species is probably better than the other at converting a pound of feed to a pound of human-edible meat. In fact, some *breeds* of animals are better than other animals of the same kind. If you’re raising chickens, for instance, you choose between the best layers, the best meat chickens (for frying or stewing?), the most disease-resistant…

    In fact, it’s so hard that I really wish we could get rid of producer subsidies and externalities because I’m not sure there’s any other way of knowing how expensive our food really is. I’d much rather have the real price at point of purchase and hand the subsidy money to people to feed themselves with (should that prove necessary).

New comments have been disabled.