The hamburger is an American staple: Climate change threatens it in profound and subtle ways

hamburger
AP Photo/The Tyler Morning Telegraph, Sarah A. Miller
Tim Pierce of Athens, Texas starts on his second Big Mac in the McDonald’s Hamburger Eating Contest at the Uncle Fletch Hamburger Festival in Athens, Texas, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Competitors raced to be the first to finish five Big Macs. The festival honors Fletcher Davis, an Athens resident who according to a Texas House Resolution may have been the originator of the hamburger in the United States.

Today — May 28 — is National Hamburger Day, and it’s well justified. Most of us savor a burger off the grill, the kitchen skillet, or from one of the 80,000 burger restaurants in the U.S. with a market over $100 billion. The burger is ranked third among America’s popular dishes, right after mashed potatoes and French fries. Why? Because it’s tasty, convenient, relatively inexpensive, comes in dozens of variations — meat to meatless, and with a range of condiments and sides. And when barbecued, the burger brings us together.

It’s hard to imagine America without the hamburger, but change is in the wind. Yes, a changing climate is changing the burger.

Let’s start with the main ingredient in the typical burger — beef. Unfortunately, like humans, the health of beef cattle are at increasing risks from higher temperatures and droughts. Heat stress increases the chance for disease, decreases the rate of growth, and can even cause death in cattle. Droughts, which we are already experiencing, are expected to increase and intensify in coming years — dramatically impacting the vast grazing lands covering about 40 percent of the U.S. land area. Grains needed by cattle are also facing increasing threats — all contributing to higher prices for beef. 

Next comes the bun, which is typically made from wheat. Because of warming, wheat will actually expand production into new areas in the U.S. over the next 30 years, but then level off, only to face a severe global water shortage later in the century. The war in Ukraine is currently causing price increases for wheat, but climate change is its biggest long-term threat. In the U.S., vast stores of groundwater for irrigation are rapidly being depleted, threatening the future of grain production and much more. And one of the hidden changes is the decrease in the nutritional quality of wheat as carbon dioxide levels increase. That’s not necessarily a big deal for a burger bun in the U.S., but it is for the millions of people already on marginal diets worldwide. 

Now let’s consider what we add to our burgers for flavor, juiciness, and texture. Change is happening here too, some good, but most, not so good.

With increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, tomatoes may be sweeter and have more vitamin C. But if too hot, tomato plants produce fewer fruit, or the fruit get sunburned and don’t grow to full size. Heat can also impact onions, which become more pungent when it’s too hot. Lettuce yields are predicted to increase under higher levels of carbon dioxide in the future. It’s possible lettuce might be grown year-round as winter warms. However, when it gets too warm the lettuce can have a strong and bitter taste.  

Ketchup that is used by 310 million Americans is made from processing tomatoes, most of which come from California, where heat and drought have taken a tollMustard is in short supply now and getting pricier because of drought and flooding in Canada. Spices like ginger and cloves — sometimes added to these condiments — are at increasing risk, and so is regular sugar and high fructose corn syrup used in ketchup. Hot peppers will get hotter. Finally, the cheese in the cheeseburger will likely take a hit because hot cows produce less milk.

Enough already? 

What can be done to keep the beef burger on the grill? A lot. 

Scientists are working hard to develop crops that can withstand what climate change throws at them and maintain their nutritional quality. They are seeking ways to help reduce emissions from cattle. Farming and ranching are already tough professions and getting tougher, but farmers and ranchers are using climate smart practices to stay in business and produce the food we love and need. They need our respect and support. 

Consumers can also play a role in saving beef burgers by eating fewer of them. It’s better for our health and the climate. Beef generates about 50 times more greenhouse gas emissions than wheat to produce an ounce of protein. Consider a plant-based diet and treating beef as a delicacy and not a staple. 

Let’s celebrate National Hamburger Day but realize that everything we eat is changing in subtle or profound ways, as our climate changes. And keeping our food supply affordable, plentiful, and diverse is going to require everyone. Can we use the common ground of food to work together? We all eat. This could be one step in the right direction to saving not only the hamburger but maybe something much greater — our future. 

Mike Hoffmann is professor emeritus at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a faculty fellow with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. He is lead author of “Our changing menu: Climate change and the foods we love and need.” He has done a TEDx, “Climate Change: It’s time to raise our voices,” and teaches an eCornell climate change leadership course.

Tags Agriculture beef production Cattle Climate change Climate change and agriculture Droughts food supply Hamburger high fructose corn syrup methane emissions nutritional quality tomato Ukraine wheat vegetable farming Vegetables wheat production

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