By Dr Justine Butler, Senior Health Researcher & Writer, Viva!
Despite a significant decline in recent years, 15 million turkeys were still slaughtered in the UK in 2016. That number of people could fill Wembley Stadium nearly 200 times over! The majority of these unfortunate birds are killed for the Christmas dinner table. At a time when it is universally agreed that we need to be eating less animal produce, are we finally beginning to get the message? Most meat-eaters admit they don’t even like turkey. So are they opting for duck, goose or one of those hideous monstrosities where they jam one bird into another and then another? Or are we moving towards making a healthier and kinder choice and going for the nut roast or chestnut wellington?
We’ve only been eating turkeys at Christmas for a few hundred years. It was during the 16th century that turkey started to become popular, when Spaniards imported them from America. Henry VIII was apparently the first English king to eat turkey, but Edward VII made it fashionable to eat them at Christmas.
Modern farmed turkeys descend from their wild counterparts that live in North and Central America. They are opportunistic omnivores and in their natural environment they roost in trees and roam around the woodlands eating a wide variety of plants and insects. They are naturally inquisitive birds who enjoy foraging. Although they were first bred domestically over two thousand years ago, the intensive breeding methods we see today have developed rapidly over the last three or four decades. Like chickens and other birds bred for meat, the emphasis is on developing breeds that grow rapidly with large amounts of breast meat.
So the modern farmed turkey is much heavier than his wild relatives. The average weight of a wild male turkey is around 7.5 kilogrammes. However, through selective breeding, a male domesticated turkey may reach as much as 25 kilogrammes in just 20 weeks (around the same size as a six-year-old boy). That is a lot of weight to be carrying round on two skinny little legs! The stress of carrying such an unnaturally heavy body can result in joint pain and degeneration of the joints.
When running, wild turkeys can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour. An adult turkey can fly for short distances of speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Needless to say, commercially-farmed turkeys are unable to fly. However, they still want to stretch their wings, run, investigate their environment and sit on raised perches. However, most turkeys in the UK are reared intensively and these natural urges are denied them. It’s a grim existence…
Over 90 per cent of turkeys in the UK are reared on the floor of large, purpose-built windowless sheds. A limited number of farms use pole barns, where the top half of the wall is made of fencing to allow in some light and air. Up to 25,000 birds may be confined to just one building. Aside from the feeders and drinkers present, the sheds are often bear with few opportunities for the birds to express natural behaviours such as perching and foraging. The floor is covered in litter and by the end of the growing period as much as 80 per cent of the litter may be made up of the Turkeys’ own faeces. This results in the build-up of ammonia which can cause ulcerated feet and painful (hock) burns on the turkeys’ legs and breasts. These marks are where the ammonia from the waste burns through the skin. Some meat processors remove these marks as they tend to put off the customers! According to poultry industry standards, hock burns can affect up to 15 per cent of a given flock, but independent studies have found incidents of hock burn to be far more common. Researchers from Cambridge University found hock burns in 82 per cent of the chickens they examined in supermarkets.
Inevitably, some might say, intensive farming on such a large scale has led to the emergence of various diseases in turkeys. These include Blackhead disease (histomoniasis), caused by a microscopic parasite; Ornithobacterium rhinotracheale (ORT), a bacterium that causes respiratory disease in poultry and avian influenza (H5NI or bird flu). Even if the turkey manages to avoid these diseases, the short, miserable life of a farmed turkey ends with a trip to the abattoir. Farmed turkeys are usually slaughtered between the ages of 12 and 26 weeks, although according to Defra, some may be as young as eight weeks. In the wild, turkeys can live for up to 10 years.
It is beyond question now that the typical meat-based Western diet requires more energy, land and water resources than we have at our disposal. Producing animal-based food is typically much less efficient than harvesting grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit for human consumption. It takes almost four kilogrammes of grain to produce just one kilogramme of turkey meat. Nearly 40 per cent of world grain is fed to livestock (rather than being consumed directly by humans) so that some people can eat meat. This is not sustainable. Meat production puts a strain on fossil fuels too. The average fossil fuel energy input for animal protein production systems is around 25 kilocalories (kcal) fossil energy input per kcal of protein produced. This is more than 11 times greater than that for grain protein production. The ratio of fossil energy inputs required to produce one kcal of protein in turkeys is 10:1. The significant quantity of non-renewable fossil fuel energy to produce this type of diet is also not sustainable.
So, what can you do? Well it’s very simple; ditch the meat and go vegan for Christmas! You will feel better, for your own health and that of the planet. There are many different websites offering a wide range of cruelty-free recipes for the festive season. You can go for a Chestnut Wellington, nut roast, stuffed peppers, aubergine towers or you can even buy a Cheatin’ Celebration Roast; off the shelf and into the oven! Having a vegan Christmas is not only important for the reasons above but also for symbolic reasons. Cooking and sharing delicious cruelty-free food at this time of year sends a positive message to friends and family. Viva! have produced a handy Deliciously Vegan Christmas guide with delicious recipes which range from classic to modern – and all 100 per cent animal-free. The guide is available to buy from www.viva.org.uk/shop or find it on Viva!’s wonderful new Christmas pages here.
It’s time to give the turkeys a break and opt for a kinder, healthier Christmas.