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How Hamburgers are Killing the Planet: Not Really, but They are Helping
According to Nathan Pelletier, of Dalhousie University, the demand for meat products will double by the year 2050 (Hamburgers are the Hummers of food in global warming). Livestock farming is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gas. According to a study done by the UN, cattle farming alone contributes up to eighteen percent of all greenhouse gases. Nathan Fiala, of the University of California, says this about burgers, “It turns out that producing half a pound of hamburger for someone’s lunch—a patty of meat the size of two decks of cards—releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a 3,000-pound car nearly 10 miles.” A large amount of this meat goes to fast food restaurants like McDonalds® or A&W® to be used in their burgers (Nathan Fiala). The three big drains on natural resources and producers of greenhouse gases in the fast food business are cattle, transportation, and packaging.
Surprisingly, the beef industry is responsible for over forty percent of the water used in North America. According to the Water Education Foundation, 9,327.255 litres of water are needed to produce just one pound of beef from ranches in California. Most of this water goes into growing grain to feed the cattle. However, this is not the only use of water in cattle farming; to survive, cattle need up to 189 litres of water a day. Also, the cattle are not only feed grain; in South America, the rainforest is being cut down to provide grazing lands for the cattle. It could take in excess of fifty-five square feet of rainforest to produce just one burger (Lillie Ogden). Susan Subak, of the University of East Anglia, found that cattle emit between two point five and four point seven ounces of methane for every pound of meat they produce. Also, a cow produces sixteen kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent gases for every kilogram of meat (Nathan Fiala). The manure and urine from cattle also have a large environmental impact. A cow can produce twenty-five pounds of manure and 150 pounds of urine a day. This waste generally goes to manure lagoons on the farmer’s property, where it sits and ferments. However, some times it can spill out causing irreparable damage to surrounding countryside. Due to these issues, cattle remain one of the big environmental problems that need to be dealt with (Lillie Ogden).
Another environmental issue that needs to be addressed is the transportation of meat and condiments from the farms and factories to the restaurants. A large semi-truck with a full load will take from fifty to fifty-six litres of fuel per hundred kilometres on the highway. In contrast, a large minivan, such as a Honda Odyssey, will achieve a highway rating of around seven litres per hundred kilometres. Also, a semi will produce about seven to fifteen grams of particulate matter and nitrous-oxide emissions per kilometre (Nylund and Erkkilä). Carbon dioxide (CO2) remains a contributor to green house gas, and semis will produce on average about .0000462 lbs CO2/lb for every mile traveled. So, if a semi travels 1,000,000 miles a year bringing supplies to restaurants, it will produce 46.2 lbs CO2/lb. However, this number is actually very small. For example, a Chevy pickup towing 2000 pounds emits .000693 lbs CO2/lb per mile, fifteen times more then the semi (Carbon Calculator). However, despite this one plus, transporting food could be more efficient if done by other means.
Finally, the packaging of fast food hamburgers is environmentally unfriendly. Each hamburger meal given to a customer comes with a hamburger, fries, drink, and condiments; every item comes with its own packaging. Each hamburger comes either in a paper wrapper, Styrofoam box, or cardboard box. Out of the three, only the Styrofoam box does not qualify to be thrown in the green bin, but despite this fact, fast food restaurants do not provide green bin receptacles. Generally, French fries come in a cardboard box or an open-ended paper bag. As with the hamburger boxes, these containers are viable to be put in the green bin, and as stated before, the green bins are not available. Drinks are next on the menu; each drink coming with a waxed paper cup, lid, and straw. Cups are green bin viable, but the lid and straws can go in neither the green bin nor the recycling. Finally, the condiments packaging is squished out. Most condiments come in plastic packets, with only ketchup sometimes available in pump dispensers. However even these pumps are not completely friendly. This is because people generally use paper cups to transport the ketchup from the pump to the table; these cups are then thrown away (McDonalds). Therefore, the packaging business in fast food restaurants needs revision, but one of the main problems is the availability of green bin disposal stations.
If the fast food restaurant and the cow are helping to kill the planet, what is being done to slow the decline? First, scientists are thoroughly looking into the possibility of in vitro meat. This vat grown meat starts with cells taken from an animal, and is treated with nutrients that are then induced to multiply and grow. The first edible meat produced in this fashion was made by the NSR/Touro Applied BioScience Research Consortium in 2000; their meat of choice was goldfish meat, grown in the shape of fish fillets. Therefore, as Winston Churchill said in the 1930’s, “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium” (In vitro meat). However, despite the sensibleness of these experiments, test tube meat is still expensive to manufacture. It costs about US $1,000,000 for just one 250 g piece of beef, so the meat probably will not be on sale for another couple of years (In vitro meat) ( Scientists Flesh Out Plans to Grow (and Sell) Test Tube Meat). The second advancement is the use of recycled materials in items such napkins and tray liners. However, the big incentive that should be inserted into all fast food restaurants is the implementation of the green bin program; this alone could save tons of waste. The recycling of materials goes even farther because the oil that restaurants use for cooking fries can be turned into fuel. This fry oil, after being filtered, can be used in a properly converted diesel car or oil heater (Vegetable Oil Fuel). Advancements to produce an environmentally friendly fast food restaurant are possible; unfortunately these advancements will take a few years to catch on.
More information on these topics can be found at numerous web pages. To find these facts, enter into the search bar “Environmental impact of a hamburger.” Some of the sites that I would recommend are The Greenhouse Hamburger and Scientists Flesh Out Plans to Grow (and Sell) Test Tube Meat. Wikipedia can also provide information on subjects such as Cattle, In Vitro Meat, and Vegetable Oil Fuel. Other information can also be located at local libraries. However, always remember that not everything stated in books or the internet is true, and if ever in doubt check the information out with another resource.
“Cattle.” Wikipedia. 21 November 2010. November-20-2010
“The Environmental Impact of a Meat-Based Diet.” Vegetarian Times.
“Goods by Semi-Truck.” Carbon Calculator. November-20-2010
“Heavy-Duty Truck Emissions and Fuel Consumptions Simulating Real-World Driving
in Laboratory Conditions.” VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. 2005.
“In Vitro Meat.” Wikipedia. 20 November 2010. November-20-2010
“McDonald's.” Wikipedia. 26 October 2010. November-20-2010
“Scientists Flesh Out Plans to Grow (and Sell) Test Tube Meat.” Wired. November-4-
2008. November-20-2010 <http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news
“Vegetable Oil Fuel.” Wikipedia. 26 October 2010. November-20-2010