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Have your turkey and eat it too

carbon emissions

How to have a climate conscious Thanksgiving without giving up your favorite foods

Most Americans view “going green” with suspicion, assuming that it’s code for giving up on anything fun, from a gas guzzling SUV to cherished traditions such as fireworks, diamond rings and Christmas trees. To be frank, the eco-movement is partially to blame.

While climate change is an urgent issue, the fact remains that a radical “all or nothing” approach has a tough time gaining traction and only feeds the ideological divide. Ironic, considering holiday traditions are supposed to bring us together.

Recent years have seen a lot of talk about how the Thanksgiving holiday, with all its trimmings, contributes to carbon emissions and therefore climate change. The miles that our food travels to get to our plates, factory raised turkeys, and wasted leftovers all contribute to the holiday’s sizeable carbon footprint. While everything they say about Thanksgiving and carbon emissions is true, there are plenty of ways to mitigate the environmental impact without canceling the festivities. Here are a few suggestions for a carbon-lite meal.

The energy expended transporting food from farm to plate, or “food miles,” is a big part of food-related carbon emissions. As a solution, shopping local lends itself particularly well to Thanksgiving, which celebrates the fall harvest. This means most of the traditional foods such as pumpkin, cranberries, squash and brussels sprouts are, by definition, in season and therefore available from your local farms. Most farm stands allow customers to reserve a turkey for Thanksgiving starting around September — so though you may have missed the boat on this one, it pays to remember for next year. Factoring in emissions generated throughout the life of a turkey, processing and transport, one 16 pound factory raised turkey from the supermarket, is equivalent to driving your car over 180 miles. The carbon footprint of a turkey that size creates a total of 34.2 pounds of CO2 — the same amount produced by turkey gravy, cranberry sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, rolled biscuits, and apple pie combined.

At the very least, buying from a local farm means bypassing storage, preservatives and shipment. If climate karma isn’t motivation enough, you might get a tastier bird as well. Locally raised animals often live in better conditions than factory farms, meaning less stress and therefore better tasting meat. They are also more likely to be fed an organic diet, which is also potentially healthier for human consumption.

Left-overs are as much a tradition of Thanksgiving as the meal itself. Everyone looks forward to these but a majority of these post-holiday remnants go uneaten and end up being tossed. The USDA estimates that 35 percent of turkey meat cooked for Thanksgiving gets thrown out. The emissions that go into producing all of that discarded turkey is worth approximately 800,000 cross-country car trips from New York to San Francisco. This left-over poultry, along with all the other uneaten food, ends up in the landfill where it decomposes releasing not only carbon dioxide but methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.

So when planning a Turkey Day feast, let’s remember the purpose of the original harvest celebrations. It was a time to appreciate the rare surplus of food, in a time when it was often at a premium. As well as to create stores for the lean times of the coming winter so it makes sense that a holiday about giving thanks for what we have, would also include a responsibility to not waste it.

There are other roads to a more eco-conscious Thanksgiving such as going vegetarian or vegan. However, for those of us not ready to break out the tofu turkey, there are ways to still have a smaller carbon footprint.


This story originally published on


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