The climate impact of the Thanksgiving meal may surprise you

I know, I know, no one wants to put “climate” and “Thanks” in the same sentence. Counting the environmental impact of a holiday celebration doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the thing. He is on vacation! It’s a day when we suspend our usual habits and put aside our prudence to spend an entire day eating, drinking and having fun – or at least watching football. And, oh yes, giving thanks.

But I’m here to tell you that the news is good. The mainstays of the meal are poultry and plants, which make Thanksgiving a much more climate-friendly holiday than, say, the burgerfest that is the Fourth of July. In fact, the only holiday I can think of with a more eco-friendly menu is Yom Kippur.

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Let’s take a look at some of the dishes in the typical Thanksgiving meal and how they stack up, climate-wise.

– Turkey

In the beef-pork-poultry axis, poultry has the lowest levels of greenhouse gas emissions. (This is according to Our World in Data, my go-to source for answers to climate questions. The site uses data from a 2018 paper that compiled one of the most comprehensive food analyzes I’ve seen and presents it in accessible, customizable way.)

Poultry, in general, has about one-seventh the effect of beef (on a per-calorie basis). A turkey’s footprint will be somewhat higher than a chicken’s because it grows more slowly, which means a turkey needs more feed and more time to reach table weight, but it’s still a good choice. (I am bound to mention that venison is even better; it has been on my Thanksgiving table the years I have had venison. Plus, it is reminiscent of what is believed to have been the original Thanksgiving of 1621, when venison was one of the few foods we know was served.)

– Oysters

Some people put them in stuffing (or dressing, depending on where you’re from), but in our house they’re appetizers. And farmed bivalves (oysters, and clams and mussels) have the lightest climate impact of any fish in the sea.

Unlike almost any other wild source of protein, oysters, clams and mussels actually leave the environment better than they find it. Because they are filter feeders, they feed on things that cause algae blooms and kill fish. And all of this would be true even if I wasn’t an oyster farmer. Honest.

– Fig sauce

Blueberries are a bit obscure, and the only analysis I’ve seen that breaks them down puts their climate impact on the same level as blueberries – so they’re at the highest level of plants, but much better than animals. I’ll just add that if you’re one of those people who like jelly slices out of a can, I’ll never understand you.

– Mashed potatoes

Potatoes for the win! They have been bashed by factions of the nutrition community forever, but this is an argument that I (along with the other factions of the infamous nutrition community) have never accepted.

However, when it comes to climate, there is no argument. Potatoes have about one-tenth the greenhouse gas emissions of poultry (on a per-calorie basis). Of course, butter and cream add to the tally because dairy is comparable to poultry and pork, and if you want to cut back on it, try baking your potatoes instead of mashing them. they become crunchy instead of creamy.

Sweet potatoes don’t have their own list in the analysis, but all tubers and root vegetables score well.

– Cornbread

After all! A good use for all that corn we usually turn into ethanol, pork and Twinkies. Whole grains generally produce a lot of food for the resources used, and corn, because it’s amazingly productive (and no, I won’t give you my lecture on calories per acre again) is the most climate-friendly of all—it has half the impact of those already low impact potatoes.

Besides, if you put cornbread on the table, you can argue about whether or not you should put sugar on it. It certainly goes beyond talking politics.

– Beans

Green vegetables are not as environmentally friendly as root vegetables. In terms of greenhouse gases, almost all plants are better than almost all animal foods, but green vegetables have the highest emissions per calorie because they provide nutrients with few calories. Since you’re getting a lot of calories elsewhere in this meal, nutrition matters, as do those crunchy onions topping your casserole. Green beans are fine.

– Pies

In my house, as in many others, it is pecan, pumpkin and apple – climate winners. Foods grown on trees tend to outperform other foods for two reasons: They grow on a carbon-storing plant that doesn’t need to be replanted every year, and each tree produces enough food.

Pumpkins, an almost universal Thanksgiving staple, are nevertheless too niche to have their own line item, but they’re a non-green vegetable (yes, technically a fruit), so I think you can put them in pie with their conscience clear. That’s a relief, huh?

Of course, pies have a crust and wheat flour is a win for the climate. Butter, forage and all, not so much, but you won’t catch me telling you to make your crusts with anything else.

– The problem of food waste

This is a rundown of some of the foods we are most likely to find on a typical American table. Basically, everything is fine! There is one villain of the Thanksgiving mood, but you won’t find it at the table. You’ll find it off the table, and eventually in the trash, after the holidays: wasted food.

By now, you’ve no doubt heard that we waste about a third of our food here in the United States. That means a third of all the energy, all the deforestation, all the nutrient runoff that goes into feeding us is nothing. If you’re interested in reducing the impact of your diet on the climate, but have found that changing what you eat is difficult, this is where you should focus your efforts.

Various groups have tried to estimate how much food is wasted on Thanksgiving, but there’s no real way to know. It’s safe to say, though, that it’s a lot. I try to plan the actual number of people I’m going to have and resist the temptation to cook a spread for a village.

If I have guests who will really use the leftovers, I always pawn some. If you have a turkey, it’s only natural that you’ll have leftover turkey, but that can be repurposed in all kinds of clever ways. And stock up on that carcass! You don’t have to do anything fancy. just submerge it in water and simmer for a few hours.

There’s one last thing, and it’s the thank you part. I think the last few years have been a rough ride for many of us, and the things to be thankful for may have been thin on the ground. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it’s an annual reminder to take inventory of what I’m thankful for. I am very lucky and my list is long.

I hope yours is too. Happy Thanksgiving.

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