Any time one attempts to grow a lot of something for one specific day, it’s going to cause ecological harm (at least in a world of 8 billion humans). Whether that’s sheep for the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, or turkeys for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

On the one hand, it feels good to all eat the same thing, to participate in a ritual that families across America are partaking in—the delicious stuffing, the nasty cranberry jelly (still in the shape of the can), the black olives that kids stick on their fingers, even the post-meal complaint session about how dry the turkey was.*

On the other, growing turkeys in quantity for one specific day means a dependency on factory farming. Sure, there are some free-range turkeys out there (I even participated in killing one, one year) but the overwhelming majority of the 46 million turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving each year are grown in pens, force-fed and abused during their short lives and then mechanically (or even cruelly) slaughtered—their bird-nature suppressed at every turn.

I bring all this up this year because of the fact that there is an outbreak of bird flu (possibly the deadliest in U.S. history) that is leading to mass death in turkey flocks, with already more than 6 million turkeys around the United States having died or been euthanized (the flu has a 90-100 percent mortality rate in turkeys). That’s 3 percent of the total “production,” which has inflated turkey prices from last year’s $1.15 a pound to $1.99 a pound.**

No being should be raised like this. (Image of factory-farmed turkeys from PETA)

Revisiting Traditions

So it’s a good chance to revisit this tradition of eating turkey—one that perhaps made sense in 1863 New England when there were turkeys roaming through your property but less so when 332 million Americans all expect a turkey dinner. Ultimately it comes down to two questions:

  1. This Thanksgiving, will you feel happier eating your favorite dish you don’t eat often enough rather than turkey?
  2. Will your family go along with the change in plans or will it cause holiday strife?

If yes and no, why not make the switch and cultivate your own tradition?*** Perhaps vegetarian—as why does a gratitude feast need to be based on the sacrifice of other sentient animals? But even if you choose meat—and there is a place for a small amount of meat in our diets (ideally in a ritually managed way, such as holidays)—just don’t choose turkey. A chicken might do (for the traditionalists who still want their stuffing and fixings), a bit of fish, lamb, or beef. Basically any meat on Thanksgiving will be better than turkey—and will take a bit of pressure off the system (and hopefully the price) for those who aren’t ready to make the switch.

Eventually, we will move away from factory farming (as it contributes to the poisoning of lands, rivers, oceans, and the climate). Ideally we’ll choose to do this, rather than have it driven by the breakdown of Earth’s systems. While not revolutionary, this little switch—perhaps minimally noticed—will help in that transition and make Thanksgiving just a bit more sustainable, just, and even more meaningful to you.

And don’t forget to give thanks to Gaia and those beings that made the meal possible, whatever you eat.

Endnotes

*Though I’d argue that the best part is the big table of desserts—which is completely independent of the turkey tradition!

**Some of that is surely due to broader inflationary pressures but that is a huge increase of 73%!

***In my case, sadly, I had hopes of eating my favorite meal, maqluba, for Thanksgiving, and having my mom join us for that, but it would have upset my mom too much. So instead, I’m joining the turkey feast she’s participating in. It’s never easy navigating family expectations, but in this case, the turkey has already been sacrificed so alienating my mom on her most beloved holiday doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes a simple meal evokes the most joy. (Image by Lum3n via Pexels)