To eat turkey or not to eat turkey, that is the environmentalist’s question


Graphic by Lilly Weisz ’23

46 million turkeys are consumed by U.S. citizens on Thanksgiving. Altogether, the processing, domestic transport, retail refrigeration, home cooking and waste of turkey amounts to a hefty sum of carbon emissions.

Lilly Weisz ’23, Assistant Creative Director

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, people on Thanksgiving, must want to eat turkey.

But is that really true?

This year, I became a pescetarian. Specifically, 2 months ago, after waxing and waning on vegetarianism and after even trying Veganuary last January, I made the jump to pescetarianism. 

I know, I know. You may be thinking:  Big whoop. You only eat fish and vegetables; what do you want? A medal?

But my philosophy is baby steps: as long as I avoid as many animal products as I can, I’m doing just a little bit more to persuade the food industry to reduce animal husbandry, therefore reducing greenhouse gases. But here’s my concern: what do I do on Thanksgiving?

Look, I’m not going to lie and say that I have sentimental memories attached to watching the turkey’s skin turn crisp in the oven, or carving into succulent meat on the Thanksgiving table in the golden glow of family. But other people do cherish these memories, and many people abstaining from meat may feel like they’re missing out on a family tradition. Thanksgiving isn’t only about the food, but the atmosphere of love surrounding the meal.

Furthermore, despite being a person who genuinely cares little for the taste of meat, I do actually enjoy the taste of a roasted turkey on Thanksgiving. And with a rise in plant-based eaters in the U.S., I doubt I’m alone in actually liking turkey but feeling conflicted over eating it.

Non-meat diets and meals are increasing in popularity in the U.S. According to Gallup, 5% of United States adults considered themselves vegetarian in 2018, and though this proportion is largely unchanging, one small statistic does not portray the whole truth. According to the Washington Post, opting for plant-based meals is increasing in popularity, and you only have to take a glance around the supermarket to see meat alternatives such as Impossible and BeyondMeat sprouting up left and right. 

Clearly, humanity’s desire for dead animals is dying down. But the more people there are restricting their diets, the higher the likelihood you’ll find more plant-based eaters struggling with Thanksgiving just like me. Confused. Lost. Longing for turkey.

Okay, you might be thinking, whatever, it won’t hurt if you eat the turkey just once. 

But that’s just it! 46 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving. There are about 4.01 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for every kilogram of consumed turkey. When you crunch the numbers, that’s about 30.71 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (environmental science jargon that means the emission of greenhouse gases equivalent to the global warming impact of a measure of carbon dioxide) for every turkey. That’s the equivalent emissions of a car driving about 77,180 miles. Per turkey.

46 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving. There are about 4.01 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for every kilogram of consumed turkey.

— Lilly Weisz ’23

In light of recent COP26 climate negotiations, we know that we have to reduce our global emissions by 45% if we hope to confine global warming to only 1.5°C by 2100. Australia burns, Texas has blizzards and countries like Tuvalu are sinking into the ocean.

In the meantime, in the United Nations, the only thing the dominating countries can do is negotiate down the amount of fossil fuels they need to phase out. 

I know that I’m just one individual, and I can’t make up for the carbon-spewing industries in the U.S., India and China, but shouldn’t I try to do something? 

But let’s take a step back: my family, like many other families, tries to eat a more plant-based diet thanks to my prodding, but they’re not going to give up turkey on Thanksgiving. Fact: There’s always so much food at Thanksgiving that we always end up with pounds of turkey leftover. Fact: my family members end up getting sick of eating turkey for weeks on end. 

So, which environmentally conscious child ends up trying to reduce the food waste every year by eating the leftover turkey? Me.

My inner turmoil all boils down to principle vs. practice. Do I refrain from eating turkey because I have made a general commitment to stop eating meat, or do I make a concession for a once-a-year holiday where my participation in the poultry party makes no impact on my family’s decisions?

For me, the answer seems clear. If I find that, come Thanksgiving, I want turkey, it will make no difference if I do eat it. 

However, this doesn’t mean I’ve given up on environmentalism. Despite how the limited scope of this article may portray them, my family has met me in the middle this Thanksgiving, taking greener actions like eating vegetarian stuffing. 

Every family is different. Some may be more ready to forsake our feathered friend altogether, others have treasured family recipes they don’t feel ready to give up. 

As individuals, we all must do what we can for the environment. And if we sometimes eat turkey on Thanksgiving, that’s okay.