The environmental costs of a Thanksgiving meal; ‘food miles’ and other damage


The first Thanksgiving wasn’t accompanied by an endless array of football games, but all the dishes were locally sourced. (ISTOCKPHOTO)
November 11, 2013

It’s easy to romanticize the 1621 coming-together of the Wampanoag tribe with the struggling European settlers, which many people now view as the original Thanksgiving.

From an environmental perspective, the nostalgic urge is stronger still. The carbon footprint of the first Thanksgiving meal was approximately zero. Seventeenth-century farmers grew food, ate food and used those calories to grow more food. The energy loop was closed, and the climate was unaffected.

Fossil fuels changed that equation. The modern idea of “food miles,” or the distance your food travels from farm to table, would have left the Wampanoag bemused. When they needed corn, they walked from their wetu — communal huts made of saplings and cattail mats — to their assigned cornfields. They hunted for meat on communal lands adjacent to their villages.

By contrast, despite some local corn production in the summer and early fall, much of the corn coming to the Washington area now originates in states as far away as Illinois and Iowa. Most of the turkeys sold in the region come from North Carolina, Arkansas and Minnesota.

As you prepare to gather your family together for Thanksgiving, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the impact your meal will have on the Earth and the climate. Using data compiled by the Environmental Working Group, it’s possible to estimate the carbon footprint of each element of your meal. It takes fossil fuels to plant, fertilize and transport the food, but not everything on the menu contributes equally. (All of these numbers are national averages.)

Let’s start with the turkey. Compared with other meats, turkey is fairly easy on the planet. Overall, producing and delivering a pound of beef to your home emits 21 / 2 times as much greenhouse gas as bringing a turkey to the table. Poultry, in general, requires far less feed per pound of meat produced than beef does. Also, a bird emits a significantly smaller amount of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in its waste than a cow or a sheep does. (Chicken, on the other hand, produces 63 percent as much greenhouse gas as turkey; this is probably because chickens have been bred to grow really fast on very little food.)

In total, a 31 / 2-ounce serving of turkey is responsible for approximately 2.4 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents, which is about the same as you produce by driving a car three miles. Of course, you’re not really going to limit yourself to one serving of turkey, so the actual footprint is likely to be larger. I’ll put you down for two servings, or the equivalent of six miles of driving.

Look down the table at those mashed potatoes. Plant-based foods are generally better for the environment than meats. Potatoes, however, are among the more carbon-intensive plant foods on a pound-for-pound basis. Although it takes very little energy to grow tubers, transporting and cooking them emits large amounts of carbon. One cup of mashed potatoes will release approximately 1.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. (Mashed potatoes typically include some milk and butter, which are responsible for slightly less greenhouse gas than potatoes per pound, but they constitute such a small proportion of the dish that we can ignore them.) Again assuming that you go for seconds, that means the equivalent of driving 3.7 miles.

What about your vegetables? Whether it’s green beans, broccoli or something more exotic, the green veggies are likely to be the most Earth-friendly part of your Thanksgiving meal. A one-cup serving of broccoli is responsible for only 0.4 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. Even if you go for seconds of your green vegetables, you’d be on the hook for only about one mile of driving.

If you have a taste for wine — or a particularly difficult family — alcohol may be another significant contributor to the carbon footprint of your Thanksgiving meal. According to numbers generated by the beverage industry, drinking half a bottle of North American wine accounts for nearly two pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents, which is equal to 2.4 miles of driving. (This is for illustrative purposes only. I do not condone drinking and driving.)

When you add up the turkey, potatoes, vegetables and wine, your Thanksgiving meal might be responsible for emitting more than 10 pounds of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. If you’re traveling fewer than 10 miles, there’s a good chance you’ll emit more carbon dioxide eating than driving to and from your meal.

I’m not one to idealize the past. Our exploitation of fossil fuels has brought us the joys of the Internet and global travel, among many other things, and it has played a part in the spectacular lengthening of the human life span. Especially at this time of year, we ought to be thankful for those things. I have no desire to turn back the clock to 17th-century life, which strikes me as having been cold, boring and rather sickly. But we also ought to give thanksfor the resources that remain available to us, and that means using them thoughtfully, both in our cars and in our kitchens.

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