Across America, 46 million turkeys are eaten every Thanksgiving. Add that to the 22 million consumed on Christmas, 19 million cooked for Easter all as a small fraction of the 212 million turkeys eaten in the United States every year.
Images of roasted turkeys are iconic to the last week of November, with depictions of crisp-skin birds and confetti-decorated turkey legs in the windows of grocery stores and restaurants. But only 30% of our annual turkey consumption (up to 16 pounds a year now, perhaps thanks in part to turkey burgers substituted for actual beef and ubiquitous turkey sandwiches available at every cafe and deli across the country) occurs during the holidays. So where are all these millions of turkeys coming from? And does it matter? Like any meat product, the answer varies.
The environmental impact of eating turkey
"You can buy two meals using turkey meat and still halve your carbon footprint in comparison with one meal made with beef," Jeremy Hall, told Farmers Weekly. "That's quite a strong and powerful position and we can now pass that view to consumers and promote the environmental benefits of turkey." In addition to cutting down on calories and fat, that turkey burger you're eating may just be helping the environment.
A recent study published in The Guardian showed that raising cattle for beef requires "28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions." And in comparison, to starchy staple produce like potatoes and wheat, "the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases."
While eating a vegetarian diet may be the most environmentally sound option, eating turkey is certainly more planet friendly than eating beef. While the first Thanksgiving likely featured wild venison dishes, turkey has replaced deer meat at many a modern Thanksgiving feast, but what type of bird should you buy?
Go for the heritage turkeys
Just like heirloom produce, heritage turkeys are bred specifically to keep old breeds and varieties from going extinct. Bred naturally (rather than artificially inseminated), heritage turkeys are raised in small flocks, with many farms raising only hundreds at a time, contributing to the low volume of heritage birds sold annually. 99% of the hundreds of millions of turkeys annually consumed in the U.S. are broad-breasted birds, that is, turkeys bred commercially to have more breast meat, which is, well, kind of gross and exploitative.
To find "the best turkeys possible" Ariane Daguin, founder, owner and CEO of D'Artagnan, a purveyor of sustainable, humanely-raised meats, sources her birds from the Amish communities in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
The life of a heritage turkey mimics that of a wild turkey, meaning it has the least disruptive environmental impact, but cannot be officially labeled organic "because it has full access to the outside all the time," Daguin explained. "The heritage turkeys eat insects outside -- that's what turkeys do when they walk around!"
And because these old, heritage breeds can go outside all the time and walk around a lot, they build muscle tone, which makes them more delicious, according to Daguin. Though commercial turkeys and heritage turkeys have similar types of meat and equivalent dark to white meat ratios, heritage turkeys are still "better tasting because they run around."
The better taste of heritage turkeys, compared to other types of poultry, is multifaceted.
"By definition, heritage [turkeys] are also slow growing, it takes longer for them to grow, so at the same size they are older than commercial breeds," Daugin said. "Because they take a long time to mature they are better tasting — age is a big thing." Similar to older chickens, turkeys that have lived longer have more flavor. The standard turkey is slaughtered at four months, but heritage breeds take eight months to reach their full size, Daugin said.
And beyond the better taste on Thanksgiving, heritage turkeys are more environmentally-friendly than turkey giants like Butterball, which pumps several millions of turkeys annually from its "plants", according to a brand representative.
"When you have smaller farms breeding smaller numbers of animals, [there's a] better balance for the ground," Daugin said.