How Green is Your Thanksgiving Turkey?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNov 28, 2013 8:35 PM


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Guest post by Jess Scanlon

Today millions of Americans gather for the traditional Thanksgiving harvest festival. At many of these celebrations the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving dinner is a roasted turkey. From an environmental standpoint, the turkey falls somewhere between chicken and eggs. A Cornell study shows it takes 14 units of fossil fuel to produce a serving of turkey. In comparison its a 4:1 ratio for chicken and a 26:1 ratio for eggs.

The environmental impact of a turkey or any animal can be calculated two ways: The resources that went into raising it and the resources used to transport it to market. The larger portion of this is the production, comprising approximately 83 percent of the bird’s impact according to Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Buying from a local vendor can reduce the number of miles the turkey travels to the platter by thousands of miles in some cases, but only reduces a small portion of the emissions associated with the bird. So what the individual farmer does in raising the hen or tom has more impact than the consumers’ decision to buy local. If saving that little amount helps your conscience, then buy local. Doing so also helps money stay in the local economy. Still, there are nuances to the local option, which Slate’s Green Lantern summarizes:

Hens at the DiPaola Turkey Farm wander their barn in early November. Photo by Jess Scanlon

The caveat with locavorism, however, is that the equation isn't always simple. Assessing the environmental impact of food production requires complex life-cycle analysis, of which food miles are only one component. For example, the benefits of a shorter farm-to-market journey may be negated if the local operation isn't as energy efficient as its distant rival.

In New York City and elsewhere, the turkeys can come from the farmers’ market or the supermarket (or restaurants for those beyond the help of the Butterball Hotline). Birds can also come in organic, free range or fried from other venues. With all these options, knowing which one is the best environmentally is not as simple as deciding white meat or dark meat. New York City’s “greenmarket” (aka local farmers’ markets) actually come from Central New Jersey about 60 miles south of the city. DiPaola Turkeys, who’ve been selling at the urban farmers markets for more than 30 years raise their turkeys within commuting distance of the city and without antibiotics. They’re not organic, however, because it’s not profitable for the farm to feed them organic feed. So the primary savings here is the number of food miles. In contrast, the standard supermarket turkey is generally raised in a feedlot by a larger commercial farm hundreds, possibly thousands of miles away from your kitchen table.

Commercial turkey farms as shown in a recent Mother Jones article are large operations that raise the turkeys at a highly efficient style for raising the birds as quickly as possible to minimize costs and sell their birds at costs that would bankrupt a small turkey farm. Three companies produce more than 50 percent of the supermarket turkeys. The farms these birds are drawn from are densely populated, as high as 15,000 turkeys. Thus, these commercial operations have an economy of scale that makes it cheaper-per turkey-- than the smaller local vendors. Whether the commercial turkey is more energy-efficient than the local turkey farm depends on the practices of the local farmer, further complicating the environmental equation. Whatever turkey you choose, have a happy Thanksgiving.

A shopper carries purchases at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket in Brooklyn . Photo by Jess Scanlon.

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