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sustainable turkey

Sustainable Turkey: How Thanksgiving Dinner Choice Help Biodiversity

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Nov 23, 2019

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, millions of Americans will be heading to their local supermarket to purchase a 10-15 pound turkey to be the centerpiece of one of the most critical family dinner occasions of the year. Almost nine out of every ten households will sit down to a turkey dinner in a couple of days, and for a good reason. According to the National Turkey Federation (and yes, such a federation does genuinely exist), a three-ounce serving of turkey breast has about 8 percent more protein than chicken with zero grams of saturated fat.

Of the estimated 46 million turkeys that we will eat this Thanksgiving, however, the vast majority of them will come from one type of turkey breed that is mass-produced in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Before you pick out the lowest-priced, frozen “Butterball” turkey at your local grocery store, consider spending a little bit more for a heritage breed of turkey. Heritage turkey breeds are healthier, more nutritious, and better tasting than the industrially mass-produced turkeys. They can also bring a unique taste to your Thanksgiving table.

What is Wrong with the Butterball?

The Broad Breasted White breed of turkey was initially developed in the mid-20th century by researchers attempting to find a way to turn a minimum amount of feed into the maximum amount of white turkey breast. During this period, small family farms were taken over by industrial feeding operations that streamlined agricultural production. Instead of husbandry and care for the land, market efficiency and increasing shareholder value became the guiding norms of agriculture during this time.

broad breasted white turkey
Photo Credit: Unnamed White House staffer

Over subsequent years, the Broad Breasted White became the preferred breed of turkey for concentrated animal feeding operations because of their shorter breast bones and massive breasts. Today, huge corporations raise this breed of turkey in fully automated warehouses where upwards of 10,000 birds are kept at a time. Due to their rapid growth rate and the streamlined way in which they are raised, most Broad Breasted White turkeys lose the ability to walk at a young age and are essentially cage-bound for the entirety of their lives. They also have lost their natural breeding instinct and must be artificially inseminated to produce future turkeys.

Because of these conditions, many turkeys are susceptible to disease and given large amounts of antibiotics, often as a preventative (instead of curative) method. One recent study found that thirteen of twenty industrial turkey producers did not report “any indication that they have policies limiting the use of antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention in the conventional turkeys they raise.” Antibiotic use might be necessary when an animal becomes sick with a bacterial infection. Unfortunately, many industrial-scale turkey producers rely on antibiotic usage to promote growth, even in the absence of any disease. Among other health-related problems associated with ingesting antibiotics, extensive use of antibiotics in animal feeding operations has led to the rise of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria of animal origin.

More than 99 percent of all turkeys on the market will be the Broad Breasted White Turkey this Thanksgiving. The major turkey producers such as Butterball and Perdue almost exclusively produce this type of turkey. Besides the problems related to animal wellbeing and large amounts of antibiotic use, the Broad Breasted White also sacrifices flavor for more significant meat profiles.

sustainable thanksgiving dinner

Benefits that Come with Heritage Breed Turkeys 

One of the defining elements of the natural world is that biodiversity is vital for ecosystem health. According to the European Commission on the Environment, “biodiversity is the key indicator of the health of an ecosystem. A wide variety of species will cope better with threats than a limited number of them in large populations. Even if certain species are affected by pollution, climate change, or human activities, the ecosystem as a whole may adapt and survive. But the extinction of a species may have unforeseen impacts, sometimes snowballing into the destruction of entire ecosystems.”

Though most people are blissfully unaware, the food choices that we make every time we walk into a grocery store profoundly impact global biodiversity. By purchasing the relatively inexpensive Butterball Turkey that is on sale this weekend, we contribute to the slow decline of dozens of heritage turkey breeds that help stabilize ecosystem health through greater biodiversity. The Beltsville Small White turkey breed, while harder to find and more expensive, is listed as critically endangered by the Livestock Conservancy. Opting for this breed of turkey can help to stimulate demand and increase the profitability of breeding programs for alternative heritage turkey breeds.

Other benefits associated with purchasing heritage turkey breeds include:

  • Better Taste: Heritage breeds have an incredibly diverse flavor profile. They might not have huge breasts, but the flavor of the meat will be profoundly more delectable.
  • Helps Small Farmers: The majority of heritage turkey breeds are raised by small family farms that produce for their local market. Small farmers are much more likely to invest in diverse animal genetics, and supporting them is a great way to become involved with your local community and local economy.
  • Healthier: Instead of keeping turkeys penned up in tiny cages, most heritage breeds are pasture-raised. This management style plays an essential role in animal welfare and creates a healthier and more sustainable meat option. Free-range or pasture-raised turkeys will not have been raised on GMO corn and soy feed but instead will have spent their lives outside eating grass and bugs.
bourbon red turkey
Bourbon Red Turkey. Photo Credit: The Livestock Conservancy

Best Heritage Breed Turkeys to Buy This Thanksgiving

The best heritage breed of turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner will most likely be the breed that your local farmer is raising down the road. If you cannot find local farmers with heritage breeds of turkey for sale, consider searching online for these delicious heritage turkey breeds.

  • Bourbon Red: This breed of turkeys has an excellent and rich flavor and can compete with Broad Breasted whites for size. Some toms (male turkeys) can easily weigh over 20 pounds.
  • Black Spanish: This is one of the oldest turkey breeds in the world. Turkeys are native to the Americas, and this breed is considered one of the first domesticated turkeys taken back to Europe by Spanish conquistadors.
  • Narragansett: This turkey stems from Rhode Island and has one of the best flavor profiles of all turkeys. According to Michael Pollan, a famous food author, this turkey has “a flavor more reminiscent of duck than turkey.”
  • Slate: This unique turkey breed is known for its blue or gray color tones. The finished bird will most likely be smaller than some of the other breeds reviewed above. However, the Slate turkey is well-suited to pastured poultry production, making it an excellent option for sustainable animal husbandry.

Where to Find Your Heritage Turkey Breed This Thanksgiving

The chances are that your local supermarket will only carry the traditional Broad Breasted White turkeys that have come to dominate the market. If you live in an area with a Whole Foods Grocery Store, you might have a better chance of finding heritage turkey breeds. Their website states that they “heritage, heirloom, and organic” turkey options.

If you don’t participate in a local farmer's market or CSA program, Localharvest.org is another excellent resource that can help put you in contact with local, family farmers in your region. At this link, you can search for heritage turkey producers near your home. Several heritage turkey producers will ship their turkeys across the country for a small fee. Elmwood Stock Farm raises Narragansett and Slate turkeys, and you can still order from their website here.

Here at Rise, we have written extensively about different ideas to help you have a sustainable Thanksgiving. Choosing to purchase a heritage breed of turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner is one more thing all homeowners can do to help make their celebrations more sustainable.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-09T11:56:37+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.

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