This Thanksgiving, UBC food experts explore the pros and cons of organic and conventionally farmed turkeys - photo by Tristan Poyser
UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 10 | Oct. 5, 2006
Thanksgiving Peril: Researchers Talk Turkey About Your Food Choices
By Basil Waugh
Anyone who has ever feasted a little too heartily at Thanksgiving knows some of the uncomfortable implications of the food choices we make.
But UBC researchers say the digestive perils of one too many drumsticks pale in comparison to the consequences of the food choices consumers make in the grocery aisle.
Prof. Art Bomke of UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems (FLFS) says the choices we make at the checkout relate to everything from global warming to avian flu and livestock welfare. “There are global implications to the decisions we make with our food dollars,” he says.
To those looking to prepare a people- and planet-friendly feast this Thanksgiving, Bomke and FLFS graduate students Liska Richer and Yona Sipos offer two key questions, plus some philosophical advice.
“There are two simple questions everyone should be asking of their food: where does it come from, and how was it grown?” says Richer. “After that, it is a matter of choosing the products that reflect your personal values, which hopefully are connected to the communities you live in.”
Organic Vs. Conventionally Farmed Turkeys
While many consider turkey dinner the ultimate comfort food, Bomke says there is much about conventional turkey farming to make people uncomfortable.
A major concern about these farms is the use of antibiotics in feed, which Bomke says has significant implications for the health of poultry flocks and surrounding farmlands.
“The intention is to keep the birds healthy, but with systematic antibiotic use there is concern that — like in humans — pathogens will mutate and become resistant to medications,” says Bomke. “The spread of avian diseases is, of course, the big fear.”
The build-up of turkey antibiotics in manure is another major concern with this practice, says Bromke, who recently initiated a research project on the issue. “What happens when this manure is used to grow other crops?” How long do antibiotics last? These questions need to be asked.”
Sipos says the desire for non-medicated food is a chief reason people gravitate towards organic fare. “There are some questions about what organic means, but mainly people who chose organics are motivated by the desire to avoid things like pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones.”
Another reason, she says, is the “ethical” question of access to the outdoors. Organic turkeys are much more likely to be free range — given access to outdoor pastures — than their conventional counterparts, which typically live indoors.
Bomke says shopping organically does come with a tradeoff, however. “The cost to the consumer tends to be higher, mainly because organic farms lack the scale and efficiencies of conventional farms. So there is a price to shopping this way — although it will vary from grocery store to farmers’ market.”
The Food Miles Factor
In most major Canadian cities, Richer says, shoppers will find traditional Thanksgiving fixings from both local and international sources. “In Vancouver, you can find Fraser Valley vegetables from less than 150 km away, side-by-side with goods from Idaho, California, Mexico — places that are 1,000, 2,500 km away.”
Her advice in this situation is simple: “Go local.” She says locally grown food is fresher than imports, better for the local economy, and — with less distance to travel — has the major environmental advantage of reduced fuel use and thus fewer global warming-causing carbon-emissions.
Richer says most North Americans would be shocked to learn that the average products’ food miles — the total distance from farm to plate — is now between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometres, according to the World Watch Institute, a 25 percent increase from 1980.
Reversing this trend requires a “top-down, bottom-up approach,” says Sipos. “On one hand, governments and local producers must do a better job to communicate the benefits of buying locally. But people also need to make it a priority to know where their food is from, which means reading signs and labels, and if they are not clear, asking clerks.”
Back Yard Successes
Sipos names the growing 100-Mile Diet movement, where participants live on food and drink from within 100 miles of their home, as evidence that Canadians are thinking more about eating locally. The diet’s co-creator, Vancouverite James MacKinnon, recently came to UBC to share his experiences with Sipos and her fellow FLFS students.
Bomke and Richer also applaud the UBC Food System Project as an example of an institutional commitment to sustainable food decisions. Now in its sixth year, the initiative brings together UBC students, faculty, and staff to brainstorm ways of increasing the sustainability of UBC’s food system, from production to waste management.
Richer says that during the project, UBC Food Services has introduced free-range eggs, local UBC Farm organic salad greens and herbs, and most recently fair trade coffee; the Alma Mater Society has introduced an ethical purchasing policy and purchases UBC farm products whenever possible; and UBC Waste Management has implemented a Get Caught Composting Campaign, where volunteers stake out campus compost bins and reward people caught composting regularly.
Another major opportunity to spread the word about eating locally and organically is the UBC Sustainability Fair on Oct. 18, says Richer. Hosted by faculty, staff, students, and other organizations, she says the event will help to raise awareness and participation in campus sustainability initiatives.