Where’s the Beef?

0716MEM_CoverThe last time I remember my son wanting to stop at a McDonald’s, he was mostly interested in the Happy Meal toy—he just graduated college, so it’s been a while. But we were in the car together a few weeks ago when we got hungry and pulled up to the first restaurant we saw, the one with the golden arches.

To our surprise, that McDonald’s had gone high-tech. I’m late to the party on this, but I subsequently learned that McDonald’s Create-Your-Taste has been around for a couple of years, mainly in Southern California and before that in global test markets Australia and New Zealand. About 2,000 U.S. locations have kiosks that give customers the option to create their own burger by selecting the kind of beef patties they want, and then choosing among the trademark special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, plus others: freshly roasted tomatoes, avocado, grilled mushrooms, and more.

Creating a made-to-order burger from a kiosk in a McDonald’s, then having it delivered to your table by a friendly server, isn’t just a novelty. It is part of the giant fast-food chain’s surge to capitalize on a growing global food culture that includes fresher ingredients and healthier options.

The most recent change in how we grow what we eat and how we consume it evolved with the trend toward organic products and through television food shows and chefs who helped celebritize the art of cooking and eating.

The evolution of food, well before Emeril Lagasse and Rachel Ray, goes back to the development of the first commercially successful steel plow by John Deere in 1837, and to the invention of pasteurization in 1864. What has been described as the second food epoch, or Food 2.0, occurred in the 1900s when the agricultural revolution ushered in mechanization, chemical fertilizers, plant breeding, and hybrid crops.

Today’s wave of agricultural advancements, some of which are described in Senior Editor Dan Ferber’s article, “Watching the Crops Grow,” on page 28, may be the bellwether of Food 3.0. The use of sophisticated robotics and drones for certain crop-breeding processes is helping the farming industry pave the way to serve a growing population on Earth, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

But farmers alone are not the only ones concerned with whether there will be enough food to go around.

In her captivating article, “Re-Engineering What We Eat,” on page 34, contributor Sara Goudarzi reports that scientists and other researchers fear that Earth itself may prove incapable of sourcing all the food we’ll need to feed ourselves, especially as the population grows in the next 35 years. Without sufficient land and water to produce beef, the alternative may be to engineer in vitro meat in the lab from precursor cells. Extensive research is also being conducted to genetically grow other meats and fish, as well as plants, in laboratory environments. A large amount of research is also being conducted on food printing, a process similar to the burgeoning 3-D printing we have become familiar with.

Even as I fancy myself a foodie, McDonald’s—high-tech or not—remains a guilty pleasure, even when there is no one around hankering for a Happy Meal. But as the notion of ordering a “high-tech burger” grows, I can’t help but feel nostalgic over the old McDonald’s jingle and fearful of what one featuring a synthetic meat burger and fries might sound like.


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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

July 2016
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