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Crunching the numbers to show the environmental cost of a hamburger isn't easy, and we should know. (iStockphoto.com)

How Much Does A Hamburger Cost? That Depends

by Jessica Stoller-Conrad
Aug 20, 2012

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Jessica Stoller-Conrad

A few decades ago, a hamburger was just a yummy sandwich.

Recently though, the hamburger has been increasingly used as a symbol of America's meat consumption and the associated environmental costs. This video, created by the Center for Investigative Reporting, is one of the latest and most complete representations of a patty's global impact.

We commend the reporters at the CIR for their diligence; compiling consistent information in this field is no easy task, and we should know. The Salt learned these data challenges firsthand when we made our own infographic in June.

However, if you compare the video with our infographic, you'll notice that some of the numbers don't quite add up. So which numbers are 100 percent accurate?

None of them. There are literally hundreds of publications that have calculated the amount of water, grain and land it takes to raise cattle. Similarly, hundreds of publications have quantified the amount of methane, manure, carbon and nitrogen that result from cattle.

And all of those calculations of what goes into and, ahem, what comes out of a cow, are based on estimates, so variability is unavoidable. A cow raised in New Mexico will probably consume more water than a cow raised in North Dakota, just as a cow raised on a family farm will take up more land than a cow in a commercial feedlot.

The same variability factors into numbers involving greenhouse gas emissions and total carbon footprint. If the input and output of a single cow is highly variable, that variability is compounded when you average data from millions of cows.

Also, when calculating these numbers, be aware of the source. If you're trying to show the negative environmental impacts of beef, you might calculate all of the water that goes into a hamburger from raising and feeding a baby cow to making beef. If you want to say that beef is not that bad, "total water consumption" might mean the amount of water a cow drinks in a lifetime.

Despite the inconsistencies, these estimations and graphics help raise awareness of global food issues. In the end, a hamburger is probably more than just a patty between two buns.

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