In 1621 the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians stuffed their faces in an autumn harvest feast, the first Thanksgiving. Although historians aren't certain of the menu, it's safe to say the pilgrims weren't gobbling up pesticide-smothered potatoes and antibiotic-infused turkey.
Fast forward nearly four centuries, and this Thursday the majority of American's will sit down to a copious table of factory-produced food. With few exceptions, 50 million turkeys will come from animal factories, while the vast majority of our fruits, vegetables, even vino will travel hundreds of miles from farm factories with little regulation or regard for environmental best practices. While raising turkeys in a factory setting, or growing corn in a pesticide patch might make our food cheaper and available to a large number of consumers, factory farming comes with seriously negative consequences for Mother Earth.
From grazing-related loss of cropland, to the inefficiencies of feeding vast quantities of grain to methane-farting cattle, to pollution, the factory farm presents many environmental problems, even catastrophic consequences. According to a 2006 study by the University of Chicago, industrialized livestock produces more greenhouse gas emissions than global transportation.
Such studies come at a time meat consumption, having quadrupled in the last 50 years, reaches an all-time high around the world. The Worldwatch Institute says global livestock population has increased 60 percent since 1961, and the number of for-food fowl has flown (try saying that ten times) from 4.2 billion to 15.7 billion.
Unlike the wild birds the Pilgrims ate, factory turkeys need constant doses of antibiotics to stay healthy. Excuse me for being graphic, but the majority of factory-raised animals are reported to live so closely packed together that they have to defecate on each other. Such close quarters creates a cesspool of nasty, even deadly (hello, ever heard of Mad Cow disease?) bacteria.
Factory farms therefore use antibiotics to fight off infections and make the animals gain weight. Unfortunately, the antibiotics also make the bacteria that survive in factory farms even stronger. These drug-resistant bacteria have migrated out of the factory farms and made it harder for doctors to treat infections. I could go on and on.
Now, I'm not saying you should serve tofurkey this Thanksgiving. Although conventional meat production causes deforestation and polluted waterways and greenhouse gasses blabidy-blah, I won't insist you replace the traditional Turkey with a slab of coagulated soybean cake--that would be grossly hypocritical.
Hah, hypocritical is an understatement. I can barely go three weeks, perhaps even three days, without vivid fantasies of red meat doused in barbeque sauce. Many lonely nights I have resembled the McDonald's Hamburgler, tip-toeing to the kitchen to gobble a few helpings of red-meat leftovers--ones I had so earnestly tried to refuse at dinner.
Confessions aside, I do find the environmental issues surrounding industrialized livestock production fascinating and important for us to consider before we stuff-our-gobs this Thanksgiving day.
Although I am not ready to hit up the tofurkey just yet, I sincerely hope to find a way to replace this years Franken-food feast with local and organic produce. I've found the Eat Well Guide, a free online directory of nearly 9,000 sustainable farms, stores, and restaurants, an excellent resource for those of us green to organic. Just enter your zip code--and voilà, you've got options.
In addition to spiking the apple cider, join me this Thanksgiving as I beg my mom to get a certified organic, biodynamic, or heritage turkey. I'm even asking she make it a local bird. The majority of turkeys are raised in Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, Missouri and California (US Census Bureau). Does anyone know of any organic turkey farms in the New York metro area?
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