This Thanksgiving, You Too Should Pardon Your Turkey | Opinion

Soon, President Donald Trump will likely step out to the Rose Garden of the White House and pardon a turkey in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday. It's a tradition that Americans and the news media have come to love, but this year, maybe we shouldn't just be spectators.

This Thanksgiving, you too should pardon your turkey.

The tradition of White House pardons of Thanksgiving turkeys has a surprising history. Harry S. Truman was the first president to receive a live turkey, courtesy of the National Turkey Federation. But he ate that bird, as did all presidents through Lyndon B. Johnson, except for John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, upon receiving a 55-pound turkey with a sign around his neck reading "Good eating, Mr. President," decided against it, instead relieving the turkey from its obligation with the comment "We'll just let this one grow." It was George H.W. Bush who formalized the turkey pardon routine in 1989, when he sent the turkey to a children's farm rather than the chef, and presidents since have followed suit.

Still, these are always silly ceremonies. Just how do you act presidential while faced with a huge gobbling fowl? Barack Obama, smiling awkwardly and cracking "fowl" jokes, always bent down to the bird and gave a blessing of the cross, a sort of pope-like pardon. George W. Bush tried petting the bird named "Liberty" on the head as he would a dog, then jumped back as the affronted turkey lunged at him—all caught in a viral video in 2008.

But beneath the humor lies a compelling story of cruelty and climate change that are not part of our national narrative of Thanksgiving.

That's a story we must take more seriously this year. Eighty-eight percent of Americans surveyed eat turkey on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation, consuming an estimated 44 million birds over the holiday in 2017. But the cost of this meal will exceed the bill at the grocery store. Commercial poultry farming is a cruel industry: bad for the environment and climate change, bad for laborers and bad for the birds.

Given global food production's impact on the environment, experts have urged consumers to radically change their diets to eat less meat in order to dramatically cut emissions from animal agriculture and to reduce pollution from fertilizers. While beef production tops the climate change impact list, the poultry industry's contribution is substantial.

In that poultry industry, workers fair particularly poorly. Contract farmers often live below the poverty line. The conditions they and other employees work under are particularly dangerous. Barns can contain irritating ammonia fumes from urine buildup, and the work can be hazardous to laborers exposed to potentially harmful anti-microbials sprayed on carcasses at meatpacking houses and who risk dangerous injuries. Yet many immigrants, some undocumented and hence unlikely to complain, take up these jobs with little recourse to improve their working conditions.

The birds, of course, suffer greatly. Those raised on "factory farms," as 99 percent of turkeys are, according to Sentience Institute, live lives without ever experiencing the sun or the feel of grass under their feet. Packed in crowded flocks of thousands in long, low sheds, they are genetically engineered to grow so quickly that some can barely stand, all to give us that great big bird as our centerpiece.

Considering all this, there's very good reason to pardon your turkey. Still, it can feel like a big step to take. Holidays, of course, are special occasions. And special foods, like the bronzed and basted turkey, are often the center of these events.

But traditions change over time, and Thanksgiving is changing too. Cooking magazines now feature vegetarian Thanksgiving alongside traditional fare, an acknowledgment of the growing number of Americans who don't eat meat or who are eating less of it.

Donald Trump turkey pardon
U.S. President Donald Trump pardons Thanksgiving turkey Drumstick in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 21, 2017. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

Besides, while the turkey plays a symbolic role in the center of the table, for many the gustatory delights and family traditions of Thanksgiving are really all about the sides. Each region and each family has its favorites: the candied sweet potatoes popular in the South, the creamed onions of New England and the green bean casserole with fried onions on top of the Midwest, not to mention the stuffing, cranberry sauce and many others.

To be sure, food is a central part of these celebrations. But the real reason for Thanksgiving is coming together to give thanks and celebrate the bonds that sustain us as families, communities and a nation. Doing that does not require us to eat turkey.

So this Thanksgiving, let's start a new tradition—a Pardon your Turkey Day. Those willing could give the movement a boost on Twitter by saying how #IPardonedMyTurkey. In itself, saving the lives of about 44 million birds on just one day won't end climate change or transform poultry workers' lives, but it will be an important start and a symbolic commitment to thinking about the real cost of our food beyond the checkout line. It's better for the environment, the workers and, of course, the birds. And you can still have those two pieces of pumpkin pie.

Jane Desmond is professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a public voices fellow of the Op Ed Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.