Eccentric orbits

Get into the festive spirit by not eating turkey this Christmas

Have you considered a Quorn Christmas? David Reece, CC BY-SA

If I say “Christmas dinner”, perhaps the following image is conjured up: a large table groaning under the weight of roast potatoes, parsnips, peas, Brussels sprouts, a jug of gravy, and in the centre “the bird”. A turkey. When slowly roasted and served with all the trimmings, turkey is delicious. I have very fond memories of eating turkey Christmas dinners.

If I had been asked what I was eating, I would probably have said something like the bird at the top of this article.

Yes, there is something a little ridiculous about the snood and wattle, the red fleshy dangly bits above and below the turkey’s head, but overall it’s quite a handsome creature. This animal, or the ones pictured below, not so much.

Unfortunately, the latter are rather more representative of the sort of turkey that will be served up on Christmas day this year. This animal is in such a shocking state because it was kept in shocking conditions. It probably never saw sunlight, having lived out its entire 16-week life in a massive barn, perhaps a repurposed aircraft hanger, along with thousands of others.

As its breast muscles ballooned to gargantuan proportions it would have struggled to stand and so would have spent prolonged periods sitting on the thick layer of wood chip, urine, faeces and dead turkeys that constitute the floor. This mix of decomposing organic matter produces ammonia which on contact with skin would cause festering open sores.

For some turkeys Christmas can’t come soon enough. Farm Sanctuary, CC BY-NC-ND

I’m sure turkey farmers don’t want their birds to suffer. But they have a strong incentive to produce the maximum amount of turkey meat (global production was 5.6m tons in 2012) with the minimal amount of time and expense. This has led to selective breeding and rearing methods that produce turkeys that mature faster and have higher adult weight. Perhaps the apex of such practices are seen in another bird farmed for its meat – the broiler chicken.

In the 1920s a farmer would rear a chicken for 120 days before it reached the weight of 1.5kg. Today, it takes about 40. This tremendous increase in the speed of development produces a range of skeletal, metabolic and skin abnormalities.

Often the birds are too heavy to even stand and hock burns, where ammonia has burnt the skin on legs and feet, are common. Some slaughter houses purposefully remove these marks as they tend to discourage the consumer. Unfortunately bacterial infections are harder to clear up. Recent investigation into UK supermarket chickens found that more than 70% were infected with campylobacter, a common cause of food poisoning.

Delving deeper into the industrialised animal production system quickly produces more disturbing material. The fact that, in many parts of the world, pigs are kept so confined in birthing crates that they cannot turn around is wrong given what we know about pigs, their sociability, consciousness and capacity to feel stressed.

These are live pigs. Farm Sanctuary, CC BY

But it’s the incidents of intentional animal mistreatment that are truly awful. The reporting and undercover filming in such cases is admirable as these issues are important and should be discussed widely.

The link to one such video is here, but in all honesty I cannot recommend its viewing as it is deeply disturbing. Adult pigs are kicked, beaten and electrocuted. Young piglets are lifted up and dashed onto the ground and left twitching in pools of blood.

These are extreme and hopefully isolated incidents. But it is still the case that our global food production involves the mechanised mistreatment of billions of sentient beings.

At this point, it’s important to stress that the response to these issues wouldn’t be solved by free-range or organic practices alone. If nothing else, there probably isn’t enough room on the surface of the Earth for the non-intensive farming of all the animals we currently have, let along the significant increase projected by the middle of this century. We need to care for our animals better and rear fewer of them.

The Earth has 19 billion chickens. There are more than one and a half billion cattle, about a billion pigs and a billion sheep. This xkcd cartoon gives some context for these numbers.

Spot the wild animals.

It’s an effective visualisation of the impacts humans have had on the biosphere and it asks us: why do we eat so much meat?

While population increase is clearly important, it is not so much the increase in total numbers of humans, but rather the increasing per capita consumption of meat. As nations develop, people become more wealthy and diets change, with increasing meat and dairy consumption being a common factor. In that respect, as others have argued, when it comes to food security we don’t have a population problem but a changing diet problem.

Using land to grow crops to feed to animals can be grossly inefficient. A kilogram of beef requires somewhere between 7-21kg of feed. The land, water and energy that is used to produce animal feed could instead be used to grow food that would be directly consumed by humans. Fewer animals could be reared less intensively and with much greater sensitivity to their welfare. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture would be reduced along with other environmental impacts.

All of this is possible – and it’s worth pointing out that we currently live in a world where 800m go hungry while 1.4 billion are overweight. The increasing obesity crisis starkly reminds us that we can have too much of a good thing and that includes meat.

This Christmas, consider a non-meat alternative to turkey, and in the New Year think about reducing your total consumption of meat. It’s perhaps one of the greatest gifts you could give to yourself and the other creatures you share the planet with.

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