This year, 88 percent of Americans will enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner. The custom dates back nearly 400 years, but today’s turkeys are vastly different from those eaten at the first feast and come from industrial operations that are a far cry from those of just 50 years ago.
In 1949, the average turkey farm produced just 225 birds annually. By 2007, 96 percent of these animals were raised on operations producing at least 30,000 a year. During this period, the number of turkeys sent to slaughter increased by almost ninefold, but the birds came from 150,000 fewer farms.
Thousands of birds are concentrated in cramped production facilities, typically providing just 2.5 to 3.5 square feet of space per turkey. Such intense confinement produces a high number of turkeys, but the cost to the environment is considerable.
Across the U.S., water and air pollution from industrial livestock operations are compromising the health of the surrounding environment. These farms generate manure—and lots of it. The 271 million turkeys that the National Turkey Federation projects will be sold this year will produce more than 229 million cubic feet of litter (a mixture of bedding and manure)—enough to fill 9,200 semitrailers. Much of this litter is applied to nearby land, contributing to the growing problem of excessive nutrients in agricultural runoff.
The transformation of the turkey industry (from many small farms to fewer and far larger industrial facilities run by growers under contract to big meat packing corporations) adds to the increasing number of issues related to CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operations—including pollution and animal welfare. Fortunately, policy changes currently under consideration could improve this situation. One of these is a requirement to collect basic information on CAFOs around the country to better determine how much of a threat they are to waterways and the environment.
Did You Know?
In 1947, the National Egg Council and the National Turkey Federation presented President Harry S. Truman with a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner at the White House, launching a tradition that now includes an official presidential “pardon” for the bird. President John F. Kennedy was the first to pass on eating the gift, saying, “We should just keep him.” Since then, U.S. presidents have graciously accepted but generally spared the bird from slaughter.
- If this year’s Thanksgiving is anything like last year’s, Americans will consume approximately 736 million pounds of turkey—some 45 million birds (mostly hens).
- More than 50 percent of those turkeys will have been produced by growers under contract to three companies.
- During their 15 weeks of life, those birds will have grown to an average of 16 pounds and produced 368,000 tons of litter, enough to cover the 2.8-mile Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade route 30 feet deep.
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Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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