Time to rethink the turkey: what Christmas really costs us

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» Time to rethink the turkey: what Christmas really costs us

Tom Kuehnel looks at our obsession with eating turkeys, what the overwhelming numbers are truly costing us, and how we can use these facts to change hearts and minds this holiday season.

The festive holiday season is upon us. A time of togetherness, thanks, and overindulgence in equal measures. It is a time when we are reminded by Geldof and the gang that we should be thinking about peace on earth, feeding the world, and charity. This can be hard to square with our excessive consumption during the holiday period. If there is one thing that is synonymous with Christmas dinners it is our obsession with eating turkeys. This is echoed in a 2015 survey which found that nearly 90% of individuals in the UK believed that eating a turkey was an integral part of Christmas day. This is disappointing news to hear at a time when we should be encouraging people to keep animals off their plates: surely compassion is in keeping with the spirit of the season?

Turkey at sanctuary

When you tell that to someone though, they may be quick to defend their eating choices by stating that they only do ‘free-range’. However, according to Defra’s own statistics, 90% of consumed turkeys are raised in windowless sheds, with as many as 25,000 turkeys crammed into one shed at a time. This is contrary to what some supermarkets would have you believe. For instance, one Bernard Matthews ‘free-range’ turkey farm boasts RSPCA accreditation, conjuring up an image of happy, healthy birds, when in fact an undercover investigation reveals quite a different story. Even if the turkey has lived a ‘free-range’ life, it will have been a short one. In the wild, turkeys can live up to 10 years, but sadly hens only make it to 9-11 weeks, and stags 19-24 weeks before meeting their inevitable fate. And, on average, 10% of them do not even make it that far. Many expire before making it to slaughter, often due to their poor living conditions. 

Although the number of turkeys killed in the UK has declined over the past decade, the nation’s voracious appetite has resulted in 16 million turkeys being sent to slaughter last year alone, with 10 million of them killed for the Christmas market. The largest producer, Bernard Matthews, slaughters up to 50,000 turkeys a day in the run up to Christmas: around 100 birds a minute

When presenting these facts to omnivores, we may hear back that veganism is too expensive for them to try. They might be concerned that plant sources of protein are unaffordable and inaccessible in comparison to animal sources. This statement often refers to vegan analogues to meat and dairy, and assumes that vegans shop exclusively in health food shops. Vegan foods don’t have to be expensive. Fruits, vegetables, high fibre starchy foods and legumes are significant elements of a balanced vegan diet, and provide a lot of nutritional bang for your buck! 

It is true, however, that meat can be cheap, too cheap. Myself and many others want everyone to forgo all animal products for ethical reasons. However, even leaving these important considerations aside, the health and environmental considerations alone should see the price of many meats go up dramatically to compensate for the harm and damage caused by this industry, as suggested in a recent Nature journal article.

"The largest producer, Bernard Matthews, slaughters up to 50,000 turkeys a day in the run up to Christmas: around 100 birds a minute." 

So why is meat cheap? The costs can be kept down in a number of ways. One way would be to engage in intensive farming practices, as mentioned earlier. This makes up the majority of turkey farms. We all, if only indirectly, subsidise the slaughter and sale of turkeys on an industrial scale at an absurdly low price tag. Another way to keep costs down is for the supermarket to sell the meat of turkeys at a loss, which is a tried and tested way of getting people into the store to buy the rest of their festive haul. This is why grocery stores keep the cost of promotional frozen turkeys as low as possible. They can afford to absorb the loss because they know that the consumer will end up making up the difference on other more inflated products in store. The cost of production can also be kept down through farmers receiving subsidies, which are paid by the taxpayer. There have been many calls to remove blanket farming subsidies, and instead only pay money to farmers who provide public goods which can demonstrate clear benefits to the environment; something animal farms cannot typically do.

But now for some good news to get you back in the holiday spirit. Earlier this year, The Vegan Society commissioned an Ipsos Mori survey which found that the number of vegans in Britain has risen from 125,000 to over half a million in the over the past decade. We also know that nearly half the population either do not eat meat, have reduced the amount of meat they eat, or are considering reducing the amount of meat they eat in the next year. There has been steady growth in the number of people going vegan, and it is showing no sign of slowing. But there is plenty more to be done. 

If you are trying to encourage your friends and family to go vegan but they need some motivation, then suggest that they take our 30 Day Vegan Pledge over the holiday period: with tips, recipes and advice, they can feel accomplished that they got a head start over the masses who’ll be taking it for their New Year’s resolution. If you're not yet vegan yourself, make sure you also take the Pledge over the break, and have a guilt-free indulgence. The most common response that we receive here at The Vegan Society is that Pledge takers find it a lot easier than they thought it would be, and I’m sure a great many of you will agree. After all, a large proportion of our Christmas meal is already vegan: stuffing, roast potatoes, vegetables, vegetable gravy, cranberry sauce. Only a couple of substitutions are needed, like grabbing a box of Tofurky or a festive nut roast. You can check out our special occasions recipe section for more ideas that your friends and family will love. So let’s encourage those around us to join millions of others in having a very merry vegan Christmas or a happy holidays!

By Tom Kuehnel

Challenge your friends to take the Veganalyser this holiday season to see how many animals they'd save if they went vegan over Christmas.

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