(November 22, 2012) It seems that more than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is associated with tradition. Everyone has their own. “It’s not Thanksgiving,” we say, “without the traditional family game of touch football or “Grandma’s mash potatoes or Black Friday shopping.” But nearly all of us can agree, it’s definitely not Thanksgiving without a main course of turkey.
Just how much turkey do we eat? According to the National Turkey Federation, the lobbying group for the turkey industry and sponsors of the Presidential turkey pardoning tradition, Americans consumed 219 million turkeys, 46 million of those at Thanksgiving in 2011.
That’s a whole lot of turkey.
Another Thanksgiving tradition seems to be the inevitable slew of articles that explain how terrible our turkey fever is for our planet. By now, most of us are aware that the majority of our turkeys are raised by industrial agriculture in barely-humane condition, are fed a cocktail of antibiotics their whole lives and are so genetically altered through selective breeding that they can’t procreate on their own. One helpful study from the University of Manchester revealed that 60 percent of Thanksgiving dinner’s 44lb carbon footprint comes from just the turkey.
But this is an industry that isn’t going anywhere given the turkey’s established place on the dinner table and its revenue generating power. About 99 percent of turkeys consumed in America are the $1.35 per pound Broad Breasted Whites that are found at your local grocery stores. If the average weight of a Thanksgiving turkey is 16 pounds, a back of an envelope calculation reveals that this is a $993.6 million industry just on Thanksgiving Day.
There has been a movement towards more earthly turkeys that are closer to the birds our ancestors ate. My family for example, ate an antibiotic-free, grass-fed, Ivy League educated turkey on Thursday. But while the purchases of heritage and legacy turkeys are increasing, it is not on a scale that is going to change the dynamic of the turkey market. And costing upwards of $8 a pound, we cannot expect most of Americans to be able or willing to pay this price tag.
Furthermore, the demand for these Broad Breasted Whites is increasingly expanding outside our borders. In 2011, exports increased from $464.1 million to nearly $600 million. Even if the demand changed here at home, demand abroad likely will continue to increase.
It’s pretty terrible if you think too hard about it and a nightmare if you are even remotely environmentally conscious. Yet despite all this knowledge, like many Americans, I find myself still helping myself to a second portion of turkey last week even though I have little to justify it. This environmental dilemma is one that I have with myself a lot - and not just with food. In deciding how to get home last week, I agonized over whether to take the train or drive.
At the end of the day though, I realized there is little that I can do as an individual consumer to make a difference. If we want to “green” our Thanksgiving traditions, we need shift in policy, increase innovation, and find ways to change the system of mass turkey production. To state the obvious, there are no easy answers and it’s not something that is going to be solved today with the purchase of a heritage turkey.
This is hard for a lot of us at Yale Forestry to admit but exactly why we’re here - to find those hard sought solutions. And for now, this must be enough.