In 2013 McDonald’s sold 75 hamburgers per second, more than six million a day. Since that year, its sales have decreased by 25%. It is not surprising, because beef is no longer just food, but a political and environmental issue. According to a report by the World Resources Institute, cattle generate seven times more greenhouse emissions per gram of protein than chicken or pork, and twenty times more than lentils or peas. One of the reasons is that ruminants produce methane, a gas with effects on global warming thirty times more powerful than CO2.
However, the problem is much more complex than it seems. Since the 1960s the world population has doubled. In that same time, the total consumption of meat has multiplied by five, but it was not because of an increase in beef. On the contrary, the per capita consumption of this meat has hardly changed.
For example, after reaching a peak of 42 kilos per person per year in 1976, the consumption of beef in the United States has only decreased to almost half today, while that of chicken has doubled in that same period. The largest growth in meat consumption in the world has been in China, which has gone from 10 million tons in 1980 to more than 70 today. But again, most of that increase is due to pork and chicken. The slight increase in demand for beef from China is offset by the drop in other countries.
In sum, no more hamburgers are being consumed per person, but while the human and vaccine population has multiplied in half a century, the land dedicated to allowing cows to graze has not.
In the world, cultivated land represents 10.9% of the mainland, while pastures, which are not arable land and cannot be used for agriculture, add up to 26.3%, more than double. Ruminants such as cows (also lambs and goats) are very efficient in converting these pastures, which could not otherwise be used, into proteins for human consumption. Animals that consume grass do not compete for the production of human food, they produce manure to enrich the soil and thus avoid drought, recycle waste and provide food security.
The problem is that in most cases, the cows we consume do not eat grass. In the United States, the largest consumer of beef in the world and the fourth largest producer, almost all of this meat comes from feedlots, intensive farms where cows are fed with soy and corn feed. The same is true of most farms in Argentina and China, the other major producers, as well as in Europe. This diet also increases methane emissions by animals.
Fifty years ago cows were raised exclusively on pasture. Today, a third of the planet’s arable land is used to produce soy and corn to feed livestock. The creepy exception is Brazil, where feedlots They are still very rare, but in return the Amazon jungle is being razed to turn it into pasture.
From 12 months to two years
In the United States, the huge cereal fields of the Midwest produce feed for feedlots from Texas. The manure of these cows is not used as fertilizer, but is dumped into the Mississippi River, which at its mouth generates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that extends thousands of kilometers into the ocean. The reasons for this nonsense are purely business. In addition to the growing demand, a grass-raised cow needs two years to reach the same weight that a feed-intensive cow achieves in just twelve months.
The awareness that the intensive exploitation of cattle is unsustainable has led to the appearance of all kinds of alternatives to hamburgers. The common goal is to get as much like a burger as possible, but without involving a cow in the process.
Two American companies are currently competing for the lucrative vegan burger business, which is no longer a chickpea and lentil meatball. The Impossible Burger is primarily made up of concentrated soy protein, but bleeds just like a traditional hamburger thanks to the addition of leghemoglobin, a protein also extracted from soybeans and which is a source of heme iron, the same one that contains meat.
For its part, Beyond Meat uses pea protein, just like vegan protein shakes for athletes. To achieve the red color and the bleeding effect, use beet juice. The big hamburger chains have already taken sides. McDonald’s offers its PLT with Beyond Meat, while Burger King has opted for Impossible Burger. The flavor and texture are so similar to real meat that they have been rejected by some vegetarian customers.
In both cases, the proportions of protein and fat are similar to those of meat, although they contain slightly more carbohydrates. They have also been fortified with vitamins, in part to compensate for the loss produced by the processing of their ingredients, because these vegetable burgers are highly processed. Its composition includes more than thirty ingredients, while only spices and cereals are added to a meat hamburger. Some are thinking of simpler options.
Insects are an option
Insects are an option to produce proteins with high performance. To obtain a kilo of crickets, it is necessary to feed them 1.7 kilos of feed, while a cow consumes ten kilos per kilo of meat obtained. Comparing grams of protein, crickets consume even less water than soy, much less spread, and with fewer greenhouse gases. The problem here is cultural. Although insects have been consumed in Asia for centuries, and certainly were part of the diet of our ancestors in the Paleolithic, many people resist the idea of a cricket burger, even if it is a flavorless ingredient in the form of flour.
The ultimate solution seems to be making beef burgers, but without cows. The first laboratory burger was obtained by a Dutch company six years ago and cost a quarter of a million euros. Since then other companies in this field have received millions in financing, including the Spanish Biotech Foods, based in San Sebastián. The technology is to grow muscle cells in a petri dish from stem cells. The result is real meat, yes, without bones or tendons, similar to minced meat.
The current cost of laboratory burgers has been drastically reduced and may be on par with animal meat. These technologies would also allow omega-3 fats to be introduced into meat, which was lost when animals stopped eating grass, making it much healthier. Applying economies of scale (huge bioreactors where tons of meat will be produced) the price, and the cost of production could go down until turning livestock into a relic. If we want to continue eating hamburgers, the world will have to change radically.