Today's fast food chains are not known for being easy on the environment. With meat-heavy menus, factory farms, pounds of packaging, and ingredients shipped around the world, the carbon footprint of some of the world's favorite burgers is high. But Sonic Drive-In is taking the first step towards changing that with its newest menu addition.
Last year, the fast food restaurant began testing the Slinger, a beef burger that’s made partly with mushrooms, which is not only healthier for the consumer, but healthier for the environment, too. The testing went so well that now Sonic is now offering the burger in all of its 3,500-plus locations, according to Fast Company, becoming the first large chain to release a “blended burger" of this kind.
While Sonic is focusing its marketing on the health benefits of a patty made with 25 to 30 percent mushrooms (the burger starts at around 350 calories) the environmental benefits can't be ignored. Livestock accounts for 12 percent of global climate change emissions, and beef requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water to produce than chicken or pork. It also emits five times more carbon. This is all made worse by the fact that Americans eat an average of 54 pounds of beef a year, or a little more than a pound a week. It's been said that eating less red meat would be a better way for people to cut carbon emissions than giving up their cars.
“Beef is the most resource-intensive food that we eat in the U.S.,” Richard Waite, an associate in the food program at the nonprofit World Resources Institute, which works with food companies to push for more sustainable foods, told Fast Company.
With that in mind, if Sonic's method of reducing the use of beef by 30 percent were used at scale for all 10 million burgers consumed by Americans every year, it would cut 10.5 million tons of annual CO2 emissions (roughly equivalent to taking 2 million cars off the road), save 83 billion gallons of water a year, and reduce the amount of global farmland needed by an area the size of Maryland, according to calculations from the World Resources Institute.
On top of that, mushrooms are a sustainable crop that can be grown almost anywhere (even in the shadows of solar panels where nothing else will grow)—according to a study that compared the sustainability of mushrooms and beef, producing a pound of mushrooms creates a carbon footprint of 0.7 pounds while producing a pound of beef creates a carbon footprint of 12.3 pounds. In short, the difference in environmental impact is staggering, and that's why the Mushroom Council—in partnership with the James Beard Foundation—recently invited chefs from around the world to compete in their Blended Burger Project by integrating mushrooms into their burger patties for the good of the planet.
While Sonic may be the first major chain to jump on the mushroom train, plant-based burgers are starting to trend around the world. Last year, McDonald's tested a vegan burger at a location in Finland that was so successful, they began rolling it out in locations across Finland and Sweden to much fanfare—150,000 burgers sold in January. Additionally, the famed Impossible Burger—a completely plant-based burger that tastes and looks just like the real thing—is gaining ground across the country.