This Thanksgiving, approximately 46 million turkeys will be killed and cooked for peoples’ dinner tables – the equivalent of the entire population of California. This is followed by another 22 million at Christmas and another 19 million at Easter. Turkeys, for whatever reason, have become a cultural staple food at major holidays. But this reliance on turkey meat is costly – for ourselves, the birds, and the planet as a whole. 

According to research from Carnegie Mellon University, the carbon footprint of a 16-pound turkey is a total of 34.2 pounds of CO2 — the same amount produced by rolled biscuits, turkey gravy, roasted Brussels, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and apple pie combined. An estimated 786,600 tons of CO2 are released when the majority of the world purchases a turkey on Thanksgiving, the equivalent of annual energy use for 100,000 homes. 

And then there is the problem of food waste. According to the USDA, consumers are estimated to waste around 35 percent of the turkey purchased, increasing the turkey’s environmental impact by 54 percent. Not only is the meat not eaten, but it also generally goes to the landfill, where, like other waste, it takes up space and releases even more greenhouse gases as it decays. 

While turkeys are generally the environmentally worst item on the table, foods such as butter, milk, and cheese also produce large amounts of carbon dioxide. The best option for environmentally conscious consumers is plant-based meals. According to dietician Kate Geagan, “plant-based foods consistently have been shown to have lower carbon footprints ― so those walnuts, chestnuts, mushrooms, etc. are far more efficient to produce in total resources than conventional animal products, especially red meat.”

And carbon dioxide emissions are not the only way that eating turkey impacts us and the world. As they are raised for slaughter, the vast majority of the 46 million turkeys that make up our Thanksgiving dinners are subject to horrific conditions. Most are confined in tiny cages, which are generally never cleaned out within their short lifetimes, leaving them to live in their waste. Many turkeys beat their breasts bloody against the bars of the cages in desperate efforts to return to their natural environment.

Turkeys are crowded in a cage on a factory farm.

Source: Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock

Unsurprisingly, in these conditions, many birds fall ill. The meat industry “solves” this problem by inserting antibiotics into the animals’ food supply, which can prevent disease and make them grow faster.

Anyone who has ever received an antibiotic from the doctor knows that you receive very specific instructions about how to take the medication: you must take it this many days, no more, no less, even if your symptoms are gone. This is to prevent bacteria from developing resistance to the antibiotic, in which case that particular antibiotic is no longer effective against that disease. But when a large portion of our food supply – and our Thanksgiving dinners – contain a heaping of antibiotics, unregulated by medical professionals, bacteria can develop immunity quickly and easily.

Source: Jun Goto/YoutTube

And this is exactly what has been happening. According to the CDC, more than 2.8 million people in the US contract antibiotic-resistant infections, and more than 35,000 die from these infections. The CDC has confirmed a link between these deaths and factory farming practices.

Luckily for us, there are many alternatives to eating turkey on Thanksgiving day. Lasagna, stuffed squash, and veggie pot pie are a few classic vegan options to try at the dinner table. For those reluctant to give up traditional flavors, there are also plant-based meat options, such as the widely-acclaimed Tofurkey. There are countless ways to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal without a real turkey. 

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Easy Ways to Help the Planet:

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