No meal is more completely emblematic of America than the hamburger. No dish is found on more menus, grills and laps, eaten behind as many wheels and at so many parties. Eating a burger is such a fundamental part of American identity that vegetarians will gag down grainy hockey pucks just to fit in.
Sandwich, salad and all four food groups in every bite, the complexity and flexibility of the burger allows it to attain gastronomic and nutritional heights that more than justify its popularity.
Alas, the burger has more recently been associated with another of America’s most famous exports: greenhouse gas (GHG). Environmental number crunchers have implicated beef as contributing as much as 17 percent of the world’s GHG emissions. And to the surprise of many, many studies have shown grass-fed beef to be even worse for the environment than feedlot-grown beef.
New research disputes this, offering hope to America’s climate change-fearing beef eaters. A Michigan State University study explored claims, long argued by rotational grazing advocates, that cattle managed intensively can be viable stewards of prairies and grasslands, mimicking the activity of the herds of buffalo and elk that once roamed these lands. If it can withstand scrutiny, the burger could be a platform for sustainable meat consumption and a pathway forward into a carbon-neutral diet. There are just two catches: for one, if beef was produced sustainably, it would mean less beef per acre. And, America would have to ditch its irrational fear of frozen meat.
The Michigan team identified two common mistakes in previous GHG emissions estimates from cattle. Previous studies consistently underestimated the impact of erosion and nitrogen pollution in fields where corn and other cattle feed is grown. Losing topsoil represents a loss of the earth’s capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Adding in those losses, the researchers found feedlot-grown beef was worse ecologically than previously estimated.
More significantly, the team argued, previous analyses underestimated the amount of carbon that can be sequestered from a properly managed grassland, and how quickly cattle can grow to marketable size on healthy pasture. In short, previous research on grass-fed beef reflected unhealthy grazing practices, skewing the greenhouse gas estimates, argued the team.
Their experiment was to monitor the carbon sequestration rates over a four-year period on a 30 year-old Michigan pasture stocked with 2.7 cows per hectare (about one animal per acre). “Rotation frequency focused on preventing overgrazing and assuring forage recovery, allowing appropriate regrowth before being grazed again,” the study says.
The experimental system, dubbed adaptive multi-paddock grazing, resulted in animals that were ready for slaughter 150 days earlier than previous studies assumed. At this earlier date, each animal was an average of 99 kilograms (219 pounds) heavier than their counterparts in previous estimates. In other words, the lighter stocking rates led cows to gain weight faster because the entire system was more efficient.
The pastured animals released about twice as much methane as the feedlot animals, confirming the results of previous studies. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Presumably the greater emissions arise because cow stomachs must work harder to digest the diverse fibers of healthy grassland, compared with corn. But these emissions were more than offset by the carbon sequestered in a well-managed pasture, since grasslands fertilized by the cows grew back faster and sucked carbon out of the air. After four years, the study estimated, the production of these grass-fed cattle resulted in a net removal of carbon from the atmosphere— compared with a net contribution from the feedlot system.
That might cheer eaters of grass-fed beef, but it comes with two important caveats.
One: they estimate a healthy grass-fed beef system produces only half as much beef on the same amount of land as the feedlot model, including the land it takes to grow feedlot feed. Secondly, the rate of carbon sequestration measured after four years isn’t likely to hold indefinitely; as the pasture reaches its optimal state, the rate of carbon absorption may slow.
The grass-fed cattle in the Michigan study were also slaughtered in December, which happens to be an advantageous timeline for any grass-fed beef rancher facing a long, cold winter. When green forage stops growing, ranchers have to supply hay to their cattle, and it’s a struggle for the animals to maintain their weight. Thanks to their fat reserves from the previous summer, grass-fed animals make it through the winter, but as those reserves drain off, meat quality suffers. The rancher has a smaller amount of lower-quality product to sell.
Processing the animals all at once in December avoids that problem, but the meat must be frozen until it’s used. Feedlot beef, by contrast, can be supplied year-round, on demand, and those animals are as fat in January as they are in July. If it has to cater to a fresh market, grass-fed beef simply can’t hang.
As a hunter, I can see firsthand how meat ages in the freezer, from the day it dropped to a year later, when we see the bottom of the freezer. A well packaged piece of frozen meat won’t lose a step for a long time.
Steak needs to thaw overnight, but burger is ready to go at a moment’s notice.
In addition to be a great way to eat frozen beef, and a way to stretch a smaller amount into a satisfying meal with lots of vegetables, America's favorite meal can even be a showcase for the growing number of viable alt-burgers that actually taste good, such as the plant-based Impossible burger, or the specter of bug-burgers or lab-grown meat burgers of tomorrow.
I’m not talking about Montana, obviously. A serious hunter in Montana can feed his or her family all the carbon-free meat they want. But if the flatlanders want to eat bug-burgers, I think that’s lovely.
Burgers are lovely.
Served on a bun with trimmings, the burger is a sophisticated convergence of flavors, presented to the mouth in just the right proportions. The meat itself tastes good, but the nibble of onion is necessary as well, as the munch of pickle, crunch of lettuce, and juicy gush of tomato. The hamburger is a laboratory for exploring what we like, and how different tastes can come together in your mouth to provide pleasure. It can accommodate new ingredients, like green chile, or a crab cake.
Alas, if there is a downside to the classic presentation of the hamburger, it's that once the first bite is taken, the magnificent structure of the hamburger sandwich begins to break down. With each subsequent violation it appears less attractive to all but the one eating it. Meanwhile, it becomes more difficult to maintain the desired proportions of meat and trimmings within each bite. With each bite, a burger gets sloppier.
And then there are the problems created by overloaded burgers. I have edged perilously close to dislocating my jaw on one such monster, but maybe that reflects more upon me than the inherent structure of the burger.
Either way, the good news is this most perfect of meals still leaves room for improvement. I believe the path forward is through deconstruction.
After all, the hamburger succeeds when it successfully combines all of those flavors, in just the right proportion. Rather than struggle to retain control of an unstable sandwich, I like to arrange each bite exactly how I want it, from an assembly of components. They can be delivered by spoon, fingertip, wrapped in a lettuce leaf, or upon an artisan toasted sesame seed bun. A few pieces at a time is just as good as all at once.
I start with a modest bite-sized piece of burger meat, and use an immodest dab of mayo to stick a piece of onion to it. If tomatoes are not fresh, I’ll mix some salsa with the mayo (aka super salsa), otherwise chase the burger bite with a juicy chew of tomato, like a sip of wine after a bite of filet mignon. Followed by a nibble of pickled pepper or roasted green chile. It is an elegant, sophisticated, environmentally harmonious way to eat meat. Even if, moments earlier, said meat was frozen solid.
So there you have it, a delicious burger that won’t dislocate your jaw and gives breathing room to small ranchers who want to turn greenhouse gases into grass-fed beef and lush pasture. And that, friends, is how you rule the grill this summer.