The incredible, horrifying growth of Thanksgiving turkeys

Back when I was an environmental journalist for, one of my jobs was to ruin people’s enjoyment of the holidays. It was kind of fun! And it was especially easy to do on Thanksgiving, because I could tell them about turkeys.

The visualization above tells you just about everything you need to know about how the American tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving has morphed into a supersized horror show. As I reported back in 2014, the modern, commercial turkey has been bred to grow at twice the rate, and to a size twice as large, as its wild cousins. Because we Americans love white meat, most of the added weight is concentrated in the birds’ chests: many commercial turkeys struggle to walk or even stand upright, and none of them are able to mate.

Actually, this illustration from Mother Jones is a more accurate portrayal of how turkeys have changed:


This is a feat of science that also comes with huge gains in efficiency, as I wrote of factory-farmed turkeys:

They require just 2.5 pounds of feed in order to put on a pound of body weight, while the feed-conversion ratio for heritage breeds can be as high as 4-to-1. From a carbon footprint perspective, they’re much lighter on the planet than other forms of meat, particularly beef.

However, I was able to identify a downside to that, too:

The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that when consumers bring home turkey, a full 35 percent of the edible meat, through a combination of cooking, spoilage and plate waste, is lost. One reason why turkey is used so much less efficiently than chicken (which has an estimated “loss rate” of just 15 percent), the ERS report posits, may be precisely because it’s typically eaten on holidays, when, according to the report, people faced with mountains of leftovers may be more inclined to discard them. Dana Gunders with the Natural Resources Defense Council calculates that about 204 million pounds of turkey are thrown away on this one day alone — it’s by far the most wasted food on the Thanksgiving table. Into the garbage with the excess meat go the resources used to produce it; despite that efficiency, it adds up to some 1 million tons of CO2 and 105 billion gallons of water.

I know, I know, I’m a huge downer. But I’ll be spending my holiday filling up on stuffing and sweet potato pie, and it’s hard to complain about that!


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