THE BLOG
11/02/2011 11:20 am ET | Updated Jan 01, 2012

Eco Etiquette: What's The Greenest Thanksgiving Turkey?

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I'm about to order my Thanksgiving turkey and I'd like to get my family the healthiest, most eco-sensitive one I can afford. What are my options?

-Cathie

Before we start in on the different ways to green your gobbler, I want to nip something in the bird, er bud: I know a lot of you passionate vegetarians out there are going to write in and ask why this question even merits a whole column. Serve Tofurky! you'll say. Or just a smorgasbord of vegetarian delights!

I don't disagree with the latter half of that sentiment (sorry, Tofurky); personally, I could subsist quite happily year-round on a diet of marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes (technically not vegetarian, I know), cranberry relish and roasted brussels sprouts.

But let's be realistic here: The majority of Americans are not likely to go veg on a holiday that's come to be known as Turkey Day. In fact, a National Turkey Federation survey found that 88 percent of all Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. You may as well convince people to give up apple pie.

Some of you may also be wondering why it's worth splurging on a sustainable bird. Thanksgiving is only one day a year, after all, and a price difference of a dollar per pound could make or break your budget if you're looking to feed an entire extended family. What type of turkey you choose to buy is not insignificant, though, when you consider that Thanksgiving turkey accounts for 20 percent of all annual turkey consumption.

The path to the conventional Thanksgiving turkey ain't pretty: Baby turkey chicks, conceived via artificial insemination and hatched in an incubator, have their beaks and talons lopped off before being shipped to a brooding barn. Packed in with thousands of other birds and left in near complete darkness, they're given two to four square feet of space to call their own and a diet of genetically modified soybeans and corn (with a dose of antibiotics to fend off illness) that will fatten them to a slaughter weight of around 15 pounds in just 14 weeks -- twice as fast and twice as large as a turkey in the wild.

The birds themselves are genetically altered to grow at this rapid rate, and with an abnormally large amount of breast meat to suit American tastes; the result is a turkey so top-heavy it can't even support itself on its own two legs. (And you thought John Madden's eight-legged turkey was a mutant.)

Aside from the health impacts of eating such frankenfowl, there's also the toll Turbo Turkey takes on the environment: vast amounts of fertilizer, fuel and pesticides to grow all that feed, not to mention methane-emitting animal waste that contaminates our water supplies.

If this isn't the way you envision giving thanks this year, there are better alternatives, though short of either hunting a turkey or raising one yourself (both excellent eco-friendly options, if you've got the skills), it can be difficult to decipher all the labels out there. Here, the breakdown:

Conventional. The majority of mass-produced supermarket turkeys, usually frozen. See above.

Natural. Marketing speak, meaning only that the turkey wasn't injected with artificial flavorings or chemical preservatives. (It may have been injected, however, with a salt water and "natural" flavor solution.) A factory-farmed turkey given antibiotics can be labeled as "natural."

Kosher. According to Jewish law, animals must be healthy and slaughtered humanely. The way kosher turkeys are raised, however, isn't any better for the environment.

Fresh. Many fresh birds are grown by local, sustainable farmers, but the label itself only means that the turkey has never been stored below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. Look for this along with other labels, like:

Free-range. This can mean turkeys that are free to roam, or it can mean that they're raised in factory farm conditions that include a small outdoor area: USDA regulations only state that birds must be "allowed access to the outside."

Organic. Birds fed organic feed -- grain or grass that's free of pesticides, hasn't been genetically modified or irradiated, and wasn't fertilized using sewage sludge (yum!). Antibiotic and hormone use is also prohibited.

Pasture-raised. These are real "free range" turkeys, raised outside and allowed to graze on grass. While not all pasture-raised turkeys are organic, this method of farming can have even higher standards for sustainability. They're also healthier.

Heritage. Heritage breeds are indigenous to America (these turkeys existed at the original Thanksgiving!), lovingly raised, and have grown in popularity in recent years along with the locavore food movement. Foodies say they're more flavorful, thanks to a higher ratio of naturally occurring fat.

Above all, the best way to find a truly tree-hugging turkey is to know who raised it; so trot over to your local farmers market to see if anyone is taking orders for Thanksgiving turkeys, or find a sustainable farm near you via LocalHarvest or Eatwild. If you're concerned about cost, take an approach that won't ruffle any feathers: Buy a smaller bird, and make up the difference with an extra side dish or a larger portion of stuffing. Your guests will gobble it up!