Environmental and Health Impacts of Industrial Turkey Production

The environmental costs of raising turkeys in high numbers in confinement are mainly related to waste. Manure accumulates in the barns and must be removed and disposed of. Poultry waste is an excellent fertilizer and farmers typically dispose of it by spreading it on fields. The problem is that when there is so much of it in one place, excess nitrogen and phosphorus can get into waterways and disrupt ecosystems, killing aquatic life and eventually contributing to dead zones.

Poultry waste that accumulates in barns also produces ammonia, a gas that is more than 80 percent nitrogen. The amount of ammonia emissions produced by broiler farms (chickens raised for meat) has been well documented and turkey waste produces the same compounds. Ammonia enters the air and can affect biodiversity, watersheds and human health.

Antibiotics, Salmonella in Poultry Production

While industrial chicken has shifted to fairly widespread antibiotic-free production over the past few years, turkeys are also harder to raise without antibiotics, and that change has been slower. Butterball introduced an antibiotic-free product line in 2017 and says it’s “committed to the responsible use of antibiotics” across the board.

Pathogens like salmonella are also a huge issue in industrial poultry production; outbreaks have occurred recently in Butterball and Jennie-O turkey. A recent European research review found that “there is conclusive evidence that increased stocking density, larger farms and stress result in increased occurrence, persistence and spread of salmonella in laying hen flocks,” but evidence on how that might translate to turkeys raised for meat is not clear.

Clauer, the Penn State poultry scientist, said turkey farms have increasingly sophisticated systems for preventing disease. “The industry really has to go out of its way from the standpoint of proper tight biosecurity practices and really good management practices to try to keep any kind of disease at check,” he said. “So they do a lot more cleaning and disinfecting between flocks [compared to chicken production].”

Alternatives to a Free Thanksgiving Turkey

Of course, when turkeys are raised on pasture in small flocks, many potential animal welfare and environmental issues disappear. In addition to the birds living outside in their natural habitat, picking for grubs in the grass, Ramsberg doesn’t have to worry about waste removal. As the turkeys pick over an area of the pasture, he expands it or moves them to another area so they can keep eating. As they move, their waste is spread out over the pasture, fertilizing it for regrowth.

Since they have plenty of space, he also doesn’t face issues with picking, which means no need for beak trimming. “They do get a little bit aggressive, especially the males as they get older and try to establish dominance,” Ramsberg said. “But if they’re given space, you don’t have the problems with cannibalism.”

Heritage Turkeys

Variations on alternatives to a typical industrial turkey exist. Ramsberg’s birds, the broad-breasted bronzes, are genetically similar to many used in industrial production; their slower growth is partially attributable to their environment. Farm Forward, meanwhile, recommends only buying heritage turkeys, which are turkeys that have not been bred for production efficiency, grow much more slowly and reproduce naturally. Famed farmer Frank Reese, featured in the documentary “Eating Animals,” is one of the only growers raising those birds commercially. Heritage turkeys are not only hard to find, they also look and taste significantly different compared to typical modern turkeys. Farmers like Ramsberg often choose not to raise them because consumers prefer the taste of more modern turkeys and because they grow so slowly, the economics don’t work out.

Organic Turkeys

There’s a similar tension with organic turkeys. The cost of organic feed is much higher (which can be prohibitive when you’re already raising a small flock on pasture) and many farmers would prefer to buy from local soy and corn growers in their area rather than buying imported feed that’s been transported across an ocean. (That’s compounded by the fact that in the past few years, regulators and journalists have uncovered rampant fraud, with major shipments of conventional grain being sold as organic. Over the past year, industry organizations have been working on various programs to curb those abuses of the certification.)

And while the USDA organic certification mandates turkeys eat organic feed and are not given antibiotics, its requirements for space and outdoor access in poultry are vague. (There is currently an effort underway to update the law to change this.)  Many organic turkey growers do raise their birds on pasture, but the certification does not guarantee that.

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