Smooth vanilla soft serve, whipped cream and glimmering strawberry syrup — all essential components in a McDonald’s strawberry shake. According to the official McDonald’s menu, if you were to recreate this milkshake yourself, all you would need to do is combine this trifecta of ingredients.
So you pull out your blender and pour in your soft serve, drizzle the glittering red syrup over your vanilla ice cream, press the mix button and top your milkshake with a swirl of whipped cream. The process takes approximately two minutes.
However, if you were to truly make the McDonald’s strawberry shake from scratch, starting from square one, your afternoon would suddenly become incredibly complicated.
Let’s start with two-thirds of the milkshake recipe, the dairy products. To produce whipped cream or vanilla soft serve, you must source a 4-year-old cow. Once you’ve found your cow, you would need to milk her. After you milk your cow, you would need to heat the milk in a large vat to exactly 161° Fahrenheit to pasteurize it, then homogenize, filter, spray dry and permeate it through a filter before you could even begin to process the milk into edible food products.
If you succeeded in producing your soft serve and whipped cream, you would have invested a lot of valuable time into the endeavor and are likely in debt from sinking tens of thousands of dollars into industrial milking equipment and purchasing hormones and antibiotics for your dairy cows.
All of that exertion would only cover two of your three essential milkshake ingredients, and now you must source all the necessary components to produce a single strawberry. Costs, economic and environmental, are added to your milkshake’s tab. Until 2017, the strawberry industry had the ozone-depleting fumigant methyl bromide to thank for its gains in economic efficiency. Without their champion disease killer, producers have resorted to other forms of chemical drip fumigation. There is an inherent trade-off between economic abundance and environmentally dubious chemicals made. And, because strawberry production is highly concentrated in California, if McDonald’s has its strawberries shipped to plants across the U.S. for processing, then additional CO2 emissions from long-haul trucking will sour your sweet treat.
At first, the intellectual exercise of extrapolating what it would be like to make a McDonald’s strawberry shake completely from scratch seems like nothing more than a lesson in supply chains. However, counting the innumerable steps it takes to transform a strawberry seedling into McDonald’s strawberry syrup exposes a troubling truth about the modern food landscape. Once a relatively straightforward process, modern-day industrial farming (or “Big Ag”) has become expensive, wasteful and disjointed.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, agrarian idealism has rapidly declined. While upholding traditional views of farming as the ideal profession is fundamentally incompatible with a rapidly urbanizing global economy, wholly rejecting agrarianism has disconnected the average consumer from their food source. Currently, the ratio of food producers to consumers is precipitously dwindling while farmers remain severely underpaid.
As the number of farmers diminishes and the food needs of the progressively growing urban populations increases, industrial farms are prone to resource waste. Industrial farms in the most productive global agricultural regions heavily depend on intensive irrigation that rapidly depletes the water supply. Similarly, excessive chemical fertilizer use stresses the already limited amount of arable land. To produce enough to feed the expanding population, industrial farming operations are burning through the Earth’s natural resources at an alarming rate.
So, with the global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and an estimated 36,889 McDonald’s locations worldwide, it is highly unlikely that there will be enough land, water or fossil fuels to produce McDonald’s strawberry milkshakes at the current rate in perpetuity.
In light of the resource strain posed by a demanding global food economy, agricultural scientists have developed an intriguing technology — vertical farming. Straight from a science fiction novel, vertical farms are commercial greenhouses that can stack 700 acres worth of farmland in shelves under LED lighting to produce year-round crops indoors. Eschewing toxic fertilizers, excessive watering, pesticides and large plots of soil, vertical farming has an extremely high yield while maintaining a low environmental impact. By consolidating a traditional farm into a contained indoor environment, vertical farms can directly supply food to massive urban centers.
In the McDonald’s strawberry milkshake thought experiment, a large amount of CO2 was emitted to transport strawberries from a fruit supplier in Michigan to a McDonald’s location in Shenzhen, China. Shenzhen is a pertinent location for the hypothetical strawberry shipment because the city is a bastion of foreign and domestic investment. On the docket of its ambitious development projects, Shenzhen is the proposed home of a 51-story vertical farm skyscraper, or “farmscraper.”
Shenzhen’s vertical farmscraper is a sensible use of vertical farming technology. The building, proposed by Carlo Ratti of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, would grow enough crops inside its climate-controlled walls to feed 40,000 people per year. Situated in the heart of metropolitan Shenzhen, the farmscraper would annually produce 600,000 pounds of food without relying on space or arable land. If the Jian Mu Tower farmscraper were built, the environmental impact of the McDonald’s strawberry milkshake would be dramatically reduced.
Eight thousand miles away from Shenzhen, in Jersey City, N.J., is another vertical farm with a much different objective. While the Jian Mu tower seeks to ameliorate food insecurity with hydroponic technology, the Mugen Farm in Jersey City is the largest vertical indoor strawberry farm for a private company called Oishii.
Founded by current CEO Hiroki Koga in 2016, Oishii is a strawberry company that uses its vertical farm to produce the Omakase Berry, a strawberry varietal from Japan. On its sleek official website, Oishii presents its strawberries as the epitome of ripeness and flavor. The company boasts a partnership with Whole Foods Market, where the berries retail for $2.50 per strawberry and have been dubbed the “rich mom” berry after being promoted on Goop, an infamous luxury lifestyle brand.
Oishii serves as an omen about the potential unethical direction of vertical farming. Whereas Carlo Ratti’s proposed Jian Mu farmscraper seeks to scale up vertical farming to solve food insecurity, Oishii uses the same technology to create a hyper-curated luxury food item. One farm addresses the inequality of the present food landscape, while the other further entrenches inaccessibility.
Compared to the proposed Jian Mu Tower, Oishii’s Mugen Farm is a small operation filling a niche for luxury strawberries for the elite. Distasteful, perhaps, but certainly not sinister. However, although it may seem like Oishii’s mission to supply $20 boxes of “perfect” strawberries has no profound consequences, the luxury strawberry brand’s partnership with Whole Foods enforces the same socially-entrenched food inequalities that vertical farming is intended to ameliorate.
To hear an expert opinion on the Oishii-Whole Foods partnership, I spoke with John Vandermeer, an ecologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in the intersection of food, energy and environmental justice. Our conversation confirmed that Oishii’s partnership with Whole Foods contributes to “food gentrification,” a phenomenon where developers build economically-prohibitive grocery stores to lure affluent consumers.
Not only is the Omakase Berry sold at an astronomical price, it’s sold through a grocery store with a history of pushing out local community grocers. If vertical farming was devised to feed more people in urban areas with less environmental impact, Oishii is doing the opposite.
According to Vandermeer, “Gentrification of food is something that should be politically opposed.” Whole Foods’s position as a primary driver of food gentrification is ironic, in Vandemeer’s opinion, because “the flurry of customers flocking to Whole Foods comes from a genuine desire to eat in a more healthy and less environmentally-destructive fashion.”
Vandermeer adds that behind the environmentally-friendly and democratizing facade, “The attempt at being ‘politically neutral’ has led some people to think of Whole Foods as a generally positive actor and ignore the incredibly destructive socioeconomic force that the company has become.” As partners, Oishii and Whole Foods both operate to obscure their elitist food practices behind a mask of environmental and social justice.
In my conversation with Vandermeer, he stated that the most environmentally effective method of per-acre food production is agroecology, or, “A mode of production based on ecological science, traditional knowledge of agriculture, design principles that come from nature itself and political struggle at the grassroots level.”
Oishii’s Mugen Farm, by definition, does not take an agroecological approach, as the Omakase Berry seeds were sourced from the foothills of the Japanese Alps and grown in Jersey City. And, despite being the far more environmentally sound and efficient operation, neither is Jian Mu Tower. However, despite its imperfections, the proposed Shenzhen farmscraper is a far more ethical use of vertical farming technology than Oishii.
Vandermeer’s insights about food gentrification and effective farming practices highlight the need for ethical considerations as vertical farming grows in popularity. To address impending challenges as industrial agriculture depletes earth’s natural resources, vertical farming needs to expand food access, not diminish it. When examining two strawberries destined for a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake, I’ll take the 20¢ berry grown in the Shenzhen farmscraper, not the $2.50 one endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow.
Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org