How Green was Your Turkey this Thanksgiving?
The vast majority of the holiday birds lovingly prepared and graciously devoured last Thursday were what I call “butterball-type” turkeys. These are the frozen birds sold by the millions at a Wal-Mart near you for a jaw-dropping price of just 40 cents per pound. These are the birds that they practically give away after the holidays. The volume of turkeys produced and sold this time of year is staggering. Butterball alone sells over a billion pounds of turkey every year, which accounts for 1 in 5 turkeys sold in the U.S.
Of course the vast majority are factory farmed. From the time they are hatched, they are on a factory conveyor belt to be sorted, then clipped here and injected there, and tossed around like ragdolls. From the hatchery, they move to an indoor housing facility, where they are stocked at such high densities that they are almost always touching the bird next to them, a growing turkey might spend its entire life with as little as 1 square foot of its own space. Stocking turkeys this way is a huge stress to their system, requiring loads of antibiotics for them to survive. Just like any other factory, the name of the game is profit and efficiency, so these turkeys have been selectively bred over time to grow extremely fast, and then they are pumped full of growth hormones to accelerate growth even further. After slaughter, the turkeys are further adulterated with a host of preservatives and injected with saline solution to keep them moist in the freezer.
In addition to issues of animal cruelty, the superfluous use of antibiotics is driving a dangerous trend. The more antibiotics are used, the more resistant bacteria become to them. That could mean nastier outbreaks of infectious disease, not just in farm animal populations, but in human populations as well.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of this kind of factory farming is its impact on the planet. When you consider all the inputs required to raise turkeys in such an unnatural factory setting, and how energy intensive it is to distribute them all over the country and keep them frozen until the date they are sold, these birds have a hefty carbon footprint. Point source pollution at the site of production is also an issue. While it may not be reflected in the supermarket price, which is kept low by economies of scale and government subsidies, meat raised this way carries a huge hidden cost to the environment.
By contrast, when they are raised on a small-scale within the context of a well-diversified farm ecosystem, turkeys can thrive while reducing pests and adding fertility to pasture land. They are natural insectivores! I could have used them this year in my garden! They keep the farm’s grasshoppers in check and their waste fertilizes the soil. When they are raised in such a manner, they don’t need medicine and the old-fashioned heritage breeds grow at a more natural rate, allowing them to develop a better flavor. If you can find a local source for this kind of meat it is even better because that means less time in the freezer and less transport. But if you want to eat local, all-natural turkey this year at thanksgiving, it will cost you. Heritage turkeys sell for between $3.50 and $4.00 per pound. But you can’t put a price on all the side benefits. Here’s hoping everyone having a greener Thanksgiving next year!