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Decolonize Thanksgiving

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Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, many of us celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving. We load our tables with foods that were said to have been eaten by the Pilgrims and the Native Americans back at the birth of our country. In reality, our Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863 under Abraham Lincoln.


There is a lot to be said for traditions but not all of it is good.


The European tradition in the United States is one of colonialism, as it is in many parts of the world. Colonial influences and outcomes include extraction of natural resources, genocide, and the subsuming of indigenous cultures. Many Native American cultures do not celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday based on the coming together of colonists and native residents. In fact, many feel a sense of loss on this day and spend the day in remembrance of the past lost generations.


Agreeing to put aside the myth of the First Thanksgiving, colonialism still sits on our laden tables. The tale of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down together has created a national food way that is based in many traditional, native foods like turkey and cranberries that probably did not play a major role in Thanksgiving until fairly recently. In addition, there has been an industrial co-optation of the some of the foods that were originally indigenous.


The way industrial agriculture has taken over our food system mimics the relations of domination and exploitation common in colonialism. This year on Thanksgiving, think about the power relations that exist in just the production of turkey and cranberries and what those have resulted in.


Our modernThanksgiving menu has subsumed ancestral and indigenous ways of eating. Although turkey is a native bird in North America, the Butterball turkey is not. Cranberries are local fruits in New England but arrived more recently to the tables of the rest of the country as canning and mass production of cranberry sauce and jelly became possible. Turkey didn't become a core part of the Thanksgiving dinner until the late 19th century. So a little over 150 years ago the turkey became the centerpiece for what we think of as Thanksgiving.


If we want to “decolonize” Thanksgiving, does that mean we must give up the foods that have become synonymous with it? Not necessarily. We need to acknowledge our ancestral food cultures and embrace them. But we also need to take a hard look at how the foods we put on our tables are currently produced and how they arrive at our tables. 

Turkey Production in the USA

Four corporations control the majority of turkey production from breeding through processing. Increases in production have led to concentration in the production and vertical integration in the turkey industry.  This has led to a more industrial mode of production with confined animal production taking the lead.  The four major corporations that demand uniformity and speed in production from egg to harvest.


Turkey production has become both concentrated and vertically integrated. In fact, these four companies own 55 percent of the market.

Slaughter Capacity
1. Butterball LLC** 1.42 Million 
2. Hormel Foods (Jennie-O Turkey Store) 1.265 Million 
3. Cargill 961 Million 
4. Sara Lee 260 Million 

TURKEYS CR4 = 55 percent*

Source: *Feedstuffs 10/9/06 (CR 4 is extrapolated from market share of new company.) ** Butterball LLC was created through a joint venture between Smithfield (49 percent) and Maxwell Foods (51 percent) that bought ConAgra’s turkey operations.  (CONCENTRATION OF AGRICULTURAL MARKETS April 2007 Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan Department of Rural Sociology -- University of Missouri)

This is not your grandma’s turkey!

Wild turkeys are sleek with dark plumage, long legs, a long neck, slim body and small head. Industrially produced turkeys have been genetically selected for white feathers to appeal to consumers who did not like the dark pigmentation on the skin of turkeys with dark feathers. In addition, this hybrid white turkey is large and fast growing.  In fact they are so large, they can no longer breed naturally and can barely stand and move. They certainly cannot fly.



There are many steps necessary to arrive at the point where a producer has poults (A poult is a young domestic chicken, turkey, pheasant, or other fowl being raised for food) to grow out to marketable turkeys. At the “grow-out” farm, poults are placed in enclosed rearing houses where they are raised under environmentally controlled conditions. Ventilation of the turkey house is critical for maintaining bird health, temperature and humidity. Day length is controlled inside the houses to control growth. Birds are grown to different sizes for the market but reach harvest weigh in between 12 to 19 weeks. Once the birds reach the desired weight they are caught and loaded into trucks headed for the processing plant.


“The narrowing of breeding lines, for the sake of producing a consistent product, has come at the price of the birds’ ability to survive off the farm … The birds have also become increasingly vulnerable to pathogens…Indeed, infections pose bigger risks today because of turkeys’ normally confined living and massive flock sizes. Today’s industrial farms may pen thousands of turkeys at one time. Just 5 decades ago…most turkeys came from farms growing fewer than 100 each, usually of a variety different from that on neighboring farms. …with the modern broad-breasted turkey, if you tried to drive them anywhere, they’d either go down from weak legs or die from a heart attack within in the first half mile. Modern broad-breasted turkeys have been bred for tenderness and rapid weight gain, which allows them to go to market fast. Most are killed at about 16 weeks, but some poultry producers slaughter the birds as early as 8 weeks after hatching. ( Raloff, J. (2003). Talking Turkey. Science News 164 (22).)




Environmental cost of Industrial Poultry


The poultry industry is a major cause of environmental degradation in the United States. The concentrated manure resulting from confined poultry houses pollutes waterways, killing fish. In nature turkeys range in small flocks over wide regions contributing to the health of the land. In poultry factory farming, thousands of birds exist inside in crowded small areas. Over the past decades, the poultry sector’s growth and trends towards intensification and concentration have given rise to many environmental concerns, primarily related to the production of far more waste than can be managed by land disposal.



Who owns your cranberry jelly?

The answer to that question is “Ocean Spray,” a cooperative of growers that produces and markets 80 percent of all cranberries in the U.S. Unlike turkey, cranberries are marketed by coops of growers. Ocean Spray has 700 growers.


Cranberry 1

Like turkey, cranberries are native to North America and were commonly used by Native Americans. It wasn’t until 1912 that cranberries became commercially available with the formation of the cooperative of growers known as Ocean Spray Cranberries. In 1930, cranberry farming moved from dry harvesting to wet harvesting with the advent of a mechanical harvester that worked in bogs. Prior to that time, all cranberries were hand harvested after bogs were drained and the fruit was marketed fresh.


Cranberries have a natural buoyancy caused by the presence of four hollow chambers.  Under flooded conditions, they loosen from their vines and float to the surface of the bog where they can then be mechanically harvested. The mechanical harvesting technique leads to berries that may be too damaged and imperfect to be sold fresh. As a result, Ocean Spray decided to use the damaged berries for canning. 


Ocean Spray had been canning ready-to-serve cranberry jelly since 1912. With a surplus of raw materials on their hands, cranberries finally had an opportunity to develop a market presence with a packaged product that lasted beyond their September through November growing season. Thus cranberry jelly in a can became a fixture on the Thanksgiving table.”


Cranberry 2

The most significant problem in cranberry production is an oversupply of fruit resulting in the price to growers being below the cost of production. The industry giant, Ocean Spray, is not meeting the marketing expectations of the grower members which has led to a loss of members and the startup of multiple regional co-ops.


Cranberry growers have a massive debt load and there are not a lot of options for land use alternatives once cranberries are planted. And recently, foreign production has developed with cheap land, high production and low costs. Additionally, there are environmental impacts from commercial cranberry production.   


Environmental Cost of Cranberry production

Growing cranberries means altering wetlands with subsequent changes natural flora and fauna.


To prepare land for cranberry cultivation, land is cleared, leveled and flooded initiating a chain of events that reduce ecosystem functions:  ecosystem services are no longer provided as a result of a decrease in natural flora to mitigate nutrient use, topsoil is left vulnerable to erosion after clearing and leveling, and natural fauna lose  some food and habitat. 


Heavy pesticide use has consistently caused cranberries to be listed as one type of fresh produce to either avoid or buy organic. Chemical fertilizers are also applied and algal blooms in waterways downstream commonly result from runoff. Despite a growing demand for organic produce, organic cranberry production is rare because costs are higher to manage pests in cranberry bogs.


Human cost of industrial agriculture

Poultry workers earn low wages, work long hours under stressful conditions, are not represented in the workplace and suffer high rates of injury and illness. Like other workers in the food chain, workers in farm fields and processing facilities lead dangerous and stressful lives. They are underpaid, have few benefits, and many are afraid to speak up and advocate for better treatment. You can help change this.


Reverse the choices of the industrial food system and seek food beyond the mass produced food marketed to us for this holiday. Give thanks for local food ways. Acknowledging that the narrative of the first Thanksgiving is based on the privileged view of a conquering race, allows us to put that story to rest and focus on the intent of the holiday: gratitude.


How to de-colonize the table this year


  1. Don’t buy an industrial turkey
  2. Buy organic meat and produce, it’s better for the environment and workers
  3. Buy from local ranchers if you can
  4. Find out how workers are treated in fields and processing plants
  5. Look for local fruit – if you want cranberries buy from a small co-op and look for organic
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