A sustainable Thanksgiving

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Coming up on Harvard Chan “This Week in Health”—planning a sustainable Thanksgiving.

{***Gary Adamkiewicz Soundbite***}

(For every 10 pounds of Turkey that we consume, that’s approximately equivalent to driving a typical car 120 miles.)

We’ll share some cooking and shopping tips that can help you lessen the environmental impact of your holiday meal.


Hello and welcome to Harvard Chan “This Week in Health.” It’s Monday, November 20, 2017. I’m Noah Leavitt.
We’re just days away from Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and as we mentioned last week, we’re replaying one of our favorite holiday-themed interviews. As we’ve discussed before on this podcast, agriculture and what we eat can have a major impact on our environment and climate change. So, in that spirit, we wanted to replay our interview last year with Gary Adamkieiwcz, assistant professor for environmental health and exposure disparities at the Harvard Chan School.

For most people, Thanksgiving conjures up images of turkey, and pies, and stuffing. And while it may be hard to have a healthy Thanksgiving, Dan says there are things you can do to make your holiday more environmentally friendly. And the first question we asked him, how can you be sustainable on a day that is dedicated to indulgence?

GARY ADAMKIEIWCZ: I think we should put the day in context. I don’t want to demonize a day that focuses on family and celebration. But I think because it is a day of indulgence it’s a good day to think about these broader issues. But we shouldn’t focus on one day and ignore what happens on the other 364 days of the year.

NOAH LEAVITT: What does it mean when we say, eat or shop sustainably?

GARY ADAMKIEIWCZ: It’s about taking a close look at the way we grow, transport, process food. How do these things affect our local environments, the global environment, probably the biggest sustainability issue we face is climate change. But there are lots of other issues to think about, water scarcity and quality, air pollution, biodiversity, soil quality. And you could really fold in a lot of other big issues. Animal welfare, ethics, fair trade, all can be considered in your personal plan or institution’s plan for providing and eating sustainably.

NOAH LEAVITT: I’m thinking of the context of Thanksgiving, and I think for most people, vegetarians aside, most people think of the turkey as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. I mean, is buying a turkey sustainable?

GARY ADAMKIEIWCZ: I think a lot of people, when they raise the issue of sustainability they frequently go straight to the issue of food miles. And, how do we eat locally? I think eating locally can be important, especially when you get to know your suppliers who are doing the right thing. But we shouldn’t focus just on food miles. And the turkey does raise an important issue.

So to give you a sense of the environmental footprint or carbon footprint of livestock or turkey, in particular. A 2011 analysis by the Environmental Working Group showed that the carbon footprint of a pound of turkey is approximately equivalent to 10.9 pounds of equivalent CO2. So what does that mean? On a per pound basis, that’s about 58% higher than chicken but 60% less than beef. So it’s kind of in the middle there. And if you put this in context with other things we do that means that, for every 10 pounds of turkey that we consume, that’s approximately equivalent to driving a typical car 120 miles.

So I think it’s useful to think about all the decisions you’re making on a daily basis and put food decisions alongside other things. Just to give you a rough sense.

NOAH LEAVITT: So let’s move to other parts of the menu. I’m thinking sides, vegetables. What can people do there to make some more sustainable choices at the rest of the Thanksgiving table?

GARY ADAMKIEIWCZ: One is that you should really think about in-season produce that doesn’t require a lot of energy input, such as heated greenhouses or cold storage. Where you live is a big factor here. So certainly if you’re in California you have a lot more options. But even for those of us who live in the northeast, the good news is that many traditional Thanksgiving foods are in season, accessible.

You can get local and fresh cranberries at this time of year in New England. You could actually get winter squash, potatoes, turnips, beets, carrots, onions, celery root. Those are all fresh at this time of year. It’s a good idea to try to cook from scratch. This is certainly a practice that people embrace at Thanksgiving. Heavily processed foods carry more embodied energy. Some family recipes have their origins in scratch cooking from healthy ingredients. But frankly, others were developed in the age of processed and packaged foods. So take another look at some of those recipes. They may be ready for re-engineering.

The other thing you can do is you can try to remove some of the chemical exposures in your food and think about going organic. There’s some cost premium here. But if cost is an issue there are ways to make informed choices. The Environmental Working Group, for example, publishes every year A Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which you can find online. It’s also an app. And if you’re trying to manage your organic produce budget, their tools can help you pick some good choices.

The other big thing we shouldn’t lose sight of is food waste. That’s another challenge at Thanksgiving. We all want to have a lot of dishes on the table. A lot of people do potluck. So you end up with a table full of abundance. But we want to make sure that that isn’t wasted. As much as 40% of the US food supply is wasted. Big holiday dinners can frequently yield wasted food on your own plate, certainly in the days that follow.

So try to plan carefully. Don’t grumble over the turkey sandwiches if you’ve chosen to eat turkey. And try to find new ways to make the most of your leftovers. That’s a real problem that we really need to focus on personally and as a society in the years to come.

NOAH LEAVITT: You started kind of putting this in the big picture, so to speak, where you used Thanksgiving as a starting point, but I think the takeaway really should be that the steps you might be using at Thanksgiving are things you can work in to your meals and your shopping every day throughout the year.

GARY ADAMKIEIWCZ: Let’s put diet in context with everything else we do on a daily basis, everything else we do throughout the year. In a way, if you think about the carbon footprint of Thanksgiving, probably the biggest footprint of the holiday is in our holiday-related travel. I’m not suggesting we all stay home.

But once again, it’s a way to put all this in context. I think according to AAA, 47 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home. That’s part of the holiday. But every day, we’re making decisions about how we heat our homes, what cars we drive, what travel we engage in, what products we’re buying. And so if we’re thinking about energy, we’re thinking about the environment, let’s put it all together in our decision making.

I think it’s a great exercise to ask these questions. We don’t want this to be a stressful day. But it’s a great place to start. So think about how you can make holiday meals more sustainable. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Start somewhere. Start with a side dish or two. Try substituting ingredients. If you’re accustomed to canned ingredients try a switch to local fresh ingredients. Get to know your local farmer’s markets. Get to know local suppliers.

In some cases, trying to make these better decisions, there’ll be a cost premium. But in a lot of cases, not. It’s good to start this conversation in the big picture, but we should end it on the big picture. Thanksgiving is about culture, tradition, sharing experiences with family and friends. I think everyone needs to relax, enjoy yourself, be grateful, and just start somewhere.


That was Gary Adamkieiwcz talking about sustainability and Thanksgiving.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can eat sustainably not just on Thanksgiving, but year-round, visit hsph.me/sustainability

November 20, 2017— In this week’s episode: It may be hard to have a truly healthy Thanksgiving, but we have some tips from Gary Adamkiewicz, assistant professor of environmental health and exposure disparities, to make your holiday feast more environmentally friendly.

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