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Today I’m thankful for turkey, which means I’m thankful for corn, fish, gasoline, and much, much more.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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On Thursday, millions across the country will gather in dining rooms around fragrant, large, delicious dead birds, stuffed with even more delicious spoonfuls of cornbread, celery, and savory herbs. Gravy will flow. Potatoes will be mashed. And pie. Oh, the pie. The abundance on the table is meant to represent the abundance in our lives, and as we gather we are called to reflect upon that abundance and give thanks.

But the food on the table did not spontaneously materialize in our grocery store aisles. There is much, much more on your table than the food on your table, figuratively speaking.

Take the turkey.

By 22 weeks a slaughter-ready turkey will have eaten about 116 pounds of feed. It can vary greatly, but let’s say half of that feed is corn. At 56 lbs of corn per bushel, that figures to roughly one bushel of corn per turkey. Minnesota, the top turkey producing state in the country, yields about 169 bushels of corn per acre of land. One 169th of an acre is about 257 square feet. Let’s say you have a 12 by 14 foot dining room. It would take nearly two of your dining rooms-worth of land in a corn field to grow the single turkey sitting on your table just for this one meal. But of course, that corn is not just corn. One bushel of corn requires about 3,000 gallons of water. That would fill an average dining room about a quarter of the way full. Plus fuel, plus the machinery and manpower needed to plant and harvest the grain, plus the resources needed to make those machines, etc., etc.

That’s just the corn. Turkeys often begin their lives eating a something called starter crumbles, a blend of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals that come from a number of ingredients including wheat, peas, lentils, meatmeal (ew), fish meal, and blood meal. I’m not trying to gross you out. I don’t personally savor the thought of chewing on meatmeal, but wild turkeys are omnivorous, eating plants as well as insects and small animals. I’m sure they love their crumbles (but they may have trouble finding them: Funny aside, farmers often have to put marbles or balls of foil into the feeders and drinkers when the birds are young, to attract their attention. Without seeing something shiny in a corner of their enclosure, it doesn’t occur to the birds look around for food when they’re hungry, and they’ll actually starve. Dumb, but kind of endearing. It certainly paints a funny picture: “Ooh, shiny! Hey, and there’s food, too!”).

So a turkey is not just a turkey. Your turkey is land, water, fuel, feed, roads, processing plants, good jobs, bad jobs, tax subsidies, carbon emissions, and fertilizer runoff. But it is also delicious. It has also brought your family and friends together for an occasion meant to help you recognize your blessings.

I’m thankful for the fact that I can walk into any grocery store and get almost anything I want any time of the year. I’m also horrified by this, but when I get a guacamole craving in February I’ll be thankful as I munch on that rich green goodness for a fleeting moment before the guilt of my complicity in a broken system sets in.

For those of us who have not yet fully embraced a zero-impact, fully sustainable way of life, I think it’s ok to be thankful in those moments, and enjoy them, as long as we’re mindful of what it is that we’re doing. And maybe, over time, we’ll become less oblivious to the consequences of our choices. When Thanksgiving dinner becomes hundreds of pounds of corn and thousands of galllons of water, maybe we will start to view a meal like that as an exception, an indulgence. Imagine what a celebration of our good fortune would look like if we did not live our lives in a constant state of consumption.

I get to vote. I have access to libraries. I live in a relatively safe area, with a beautiful public park nearby. I have friends and family that I love, and I’m going to eat some turkey with some of them this Friday (It’s way cheaper to fly on Thanksgiving). I have a lot to be thankful for. Maybe this time next year I’ll just be thankful for sweet potatoes. We’ll see how  the New Year’s resolutions go…

Additional note (1:35 pm, Nov 27): I am fully aware that we will never live “zero impact, fully sustainable”  lives. I included that line to preempt commenters that might bring up the inevitable (though legitimate) objections to our industrial food systems. “Zero impact” is a standard we’ll never meet, but I do believe we can come a lot closer to “sustainable”, and the first step is better understanding  the impacts of our decisions. Thanks M. Tucker, for the comment.


Update (4:45pm, Nov 28): A reader checked my numbers and found a pretty embarrassing mistake. I originally wrote that it would take 13 average living rooms to hold 3,000 gallons of water. Not so. 3,000 gallons will only fill a 1680 cubic foot living room less than a quarter full. My apologies, and knowing my abysmal math skills, I should have had someone look over my calculations. Still, the point stands. A lot of resources go into feeding us. We should try to keep that in mind.

Patrick Mustain About the Author: Patrick Mustain is a Minneapolis-based freelance health and science writer and digital media producer. He is interested in the challenges of public health in a consumer society. He is also a co-founder and director of, an organization inviting health and fitness professionals to help reform the industry from within. He also likes sandwiches and climbing on things. You can find more of his work at his website, Follow on Twitter @patrickmustain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. M Tucker 1:16 pm 11/27/2013

    I too am grateful for our modern society. I eat meat (although not as often as I did when I was young) and I love Thanksgiving.

    I too am horrified by the excesses of modern society, the unintended consequences, and the unaddressed negative effects our modern society is having on the environment.

    I have been seeing discussions of “sustainable” development since the 1980’s. So far it has all been talk. Very little has changed.

    “zero-impact, fully sustainable way of life” seems to be just an expansion of that long ‘ancient’ feel good notion.

    I do not believe a “zero-impact, fully sustainable way of life” is something that people or corporations or governments will adopt. I do not think it is possible without drastic changes and I’m not sure those changes are possible with 7 billion people and rising. If we just look at our developed world lifestyle it will mean changes that many, if not most, are unwilling to make.

    All I can do is make whatever changes in my lifestyle I can and educate my children about the problems modern society is creating.

    Oh, Happy Thanksgiving!

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  2. 2. greenhome123 1:52 pm 11/27/2013

    Or, get an organic free range turnkey, which I’m sure still eat a lot of organic corn…that has to be watered and all, but it’s more sustainable and less weed killer, fertilizer runoff, synthetic pesticides, etc. I image that the most sustainable and nutritious turkeys are ones that are caught/hunted in the wild.

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  3. 3. KSama 11:34 am 11/28/2013

    “I’m thankful for corn, fish, gasoline, and much, much more”

    Someone else synopsised it as, it takes food enough for forty people to create a meat meal. So, one can imagine forty hungry people watch you eat your thanksgivng, whereas, I can imagine forty hungry people eating mine with me.

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  4. 4. SugarTax 12:44 pm 11/28/2013

    You can also enjoy all the guilt you feel I should have for enjoying myself this and every Holiday.

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  5. 5. wesangle 2:27 pm 11/28/2013

    Free range turkey and grass fed beef and butter on marginal lands maintained as pasture is what I am thanksgiving for. The unintended consequences of grain eaters and meat hating vegans is over-irrigated salt deserts, loss of wildlife, and ill health for KSama’s 40 and the one unhealthy industrial grain-fed-meat eater. But how Patrick Mustains got 3000 gallons of water to a bushel of corn to fill 13 dining rooms with 10 foot ceilings when 12 ft X 14 ft X 10 ft X 13 dining rooms X 7.48 gallons in cubic foot = 163,363.2 gallons is probably a lot how KSama gets to 40 sick vegans.

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  6. 6. pmustain 5:37 pm 11/28/2013

    Wesangle, you are totally right. That’s what you get for doing math at midnight. So you wouldn’t need thirteen rooms of water. you would need one room, about a quarter of the way full. I stand corrected. It’s still a lot of water, but certainly not nearly as much as I made it out to be. My apologies.

    Not really sure what you’re getting at with the vegan comments, but thanks for checking my math.

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  7. 7. KSama 8:23 am 11/30/2013

    “You can also enjoy all the guilt you feel I should have”

    Contrary, to what you think, I don’t think about you a’tall.

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  8. 8. SugarTax 9:01 am 11/30/2013


    “Contrary, to what you think, I don’t think about you a’tall.”

    You thought my post was in response to yours?!?!?
    How conceited!

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