Photo: Waterfall in Hawaii

by Caitlin Rose

Long before the Pilgrims, native Hawaiians celebrated "Makahiki," the longest thanksgiving in the world, which lasted four months—approximately November through February. During this time, both work and war were forbidden.1, 2 As the most important holiday of the year, Makahiki is the traditional Hawaiian celebration of the harvest and time of personal rest and spiritual and cultural renewal.3

It was a humbling experience. We have so much to be thankful for! We are all so fortunate to live in a beautiful environment, surrounded by sunlight, sea breezes, warm rain and inviting landscapes. Our islands are rich and fertile from volcanic soil, and we share our ecosystem with a diverse range of flora and fauna. We have access to delicious and abundant fresh fruits and vegetables all year round.

In traditional Hawaiian culture, giving thanks was an everyday affair. Giving, whether it was in the form of food, shelter, appreciation, love or aloha, was an integral part of everyone’s daily life. As we contemplate all we have to be thankful for, we also have an opportunity to consider what we can give back.

E Mālama I Ka `Āina, E Ola Pono

(Cherish the Land, Live in Health and Harmony)

This Thanksgiving, why not express your thanksgiving and deepest aloha by preparing a heart-healthy, compassionate, plant-based meal instead of the usual turkey dinner? You would join millions of people around the world who aim to create a world where human beings and animals live together in peace, supporting the Earth through a sustainable lifestyle, and being supported by her.

In this way, should someone ask why you are going vegetarian this Thanksgiving, you could say, “For my health and my family's health, for the environment, and for the sake of the innocent animals!” I, for one, could say this for several reasons.

Better Health

For starters, turkey flesh is loaded with cholesterol and saturated fats, which have been associated conclusively with an elevated risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases that kill 1.3 million Americans annually.4

According to the American Dietetic Association, “Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals.”5 For these and many other reasons, California and Hawaii legislatures have recommended that schools offer a daily vegetarian lunch option, and other states are considering similar resolutions.

Reducing meat in your diet is also important because it lowers risks associated with contamination from the meat itself. Turkeys, along with all other livestock are pumped with antibiotics to reduce disease and promote growth.6 Consequently, bacteria that cause illnesses in humans are becoming more resistant to antibiotic medicine due to continued use of antibiotics in livestock.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Resistant bacteria may be transferred to humans through the food supply or direct contact with animals.7 When an ill person is treated with an antibiotic to which the bacteria is resistant, the antibiotic will not help and may even make the illness worse. Also, increasing antibiotic resistance in the bacteria harbored by animals makes it more likely for humans who do get infected to have a resistant strain. The illness may last longer, be more serious, or more expensive to treat.”8

In addition, scientific studies and government records indicate that upwards of 90 percent of poultry become infected with E. coli during slaughter, and 39-75 percent of poultry in grocery stores are still infected despite chlorine baths to reduce contamination. Some 70-90 percent are infected with campylobacter, another potentially lethal pathogen.9, 10 These figures may contribute to the over 76 million cases of food borne illnesses that the CDC estimates occur every year in America.11

Looking behind the scenes of a turkey farm, it’s easy to see how they get contaminated with bacteria and antibiotics. Almost without exception, every one of the 300 million turkeys killed each year in the US will spend their entire lives in large sheds, crammed so tightly that they spend most of their lives rubbing against one another with barely room to move. Literally! With up to 25,000 birds crowded into a shed without adequate ventilation, their eyes and lungs are burned from the fumes emanating from their nitrogen-rich excrement. It's no surprise that almost one in ten turkeys die on the factory floor.12

Improved Environment

Factory farming not only poses health issues, it poses environmental challenges, too. Much of the 10 billion pounds of manure generated by 7,300 turkey farms in 33 states ends up in streams and our drinking water. This is a result of storm water run-off and leaching into the water table, from mounds of untreated manure and from its use as a crop fertilizer.

When emissions from land use and land use change are included, livestock as a whole accounts for 9 per cent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.13 And the livestock sector accounts for respectively 37 per cent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 per cent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.14

Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tons.15 Methane sources - not carbon dioxide sources - are the biggest cause of global warming today, and will continue to be for the next 50 years.

The number one human-related source of methane worldwide is livestock.16 Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide levels have risen by 31%, methane levels have more than doubled. Animal agriculture produces more than 100 million tons of methane a year, about 85% from livestock digestion and 15% from manure "lagoons" used to store untreated feces. Methane cycles out of the atmosphere in just 8 years, so reducing meat consumption quickly translates to cooling of the earth. In comparison, carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for centuries.17

“Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation,” says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report.18

The United States leads the world in our annual consumption of meat and meat products. Reducing or eliminating meat from our diet is the best thing we can do in our efforts to reduce global warming. Reducing the factory farming of turkeys plays an important part in achieving this goal. It brings us to another reason why it would be good to celebrate Thanksgiving with a plant-based diet.

For the Sake of the Innocent Animals

Do it for the sake of the innocent animals. Turkeys are bred to gain large amounts of weight in an unnaturally short period of time, and they suffer heart attacks, broken limbs, lameness and premature death.

As more and more people become aware of the pervasiveness of farm animal abuse, some may search out free range turkeys, thinking that they are treated more humanely. Unfortunately, the term free range actually means very little. The only condition for a slaughtered animal to be named free range is that, at some point, "…the poultry was allowed access to the outside."19 Even if access was a small door leading to a filthy, over-crowded plot, and the animal was too sick to make it through, people mistakenly think the meat is of better quality because it's "free range." It's sad.

Regardless of how they are raised, turkeys end up at the same slaughterhouses—where they are hung by their legs on a conveyor belt, their throats are slit, and they are dumped into a vat of boiling water to de-feather them, sometimes while still fully conscious.

Raising and slaughtering turkeys for food takes a toll on our hearts in more ways than one. Besides the damage done to our physical health, the process of killing an innocent animal also takes a toll on our compassion.

This Thanksgiving, give thanks by supporting your health, helping the planet and saving an innocent turkey. You'll be glad you did and a turkey will thank you, too! Check out the recipe section of our newsletter for tips on how to prepare Tofu Turkey, Roasted Winter Squash Soup, Warm Wheatberry Salad, Maple Pumpkin Coffee Cake and a host of other yummy, plant-based dishes. This gift will help leave a kinder, more compassionate world for our children, a world where humans and animals can live peacefully together in health and harmony.

At Down to Earth we say, "E Mālama I Ka `Āina, E Ola Pono" (Cherish the Land, Live in Health and Harmony).

  1. Random Facts, Little Known Facts about Thanksgiving," (Accessed Nov. 9-11)
  2. Kenneth R. Conklin, PhD, "How Thanksgiving Came to Hawaii," (Accessed Nov. 9, 2011)
  3. Wayne Smith, "Ancient Hawaiian Tradition Tied to the Stars," KCM Cultural Resources, Kahu (Rev.) Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. (Accessed Nov. 9, 2011)
  4. "Why No Turkey?." Gentle Thanksgiving. Farm Animal Rights Movement (Accessed Nov. 4, 2011)
  5. “Vegetarian Diets,” American Dietetic Association 109, no. 7 (July 2009): 1266-1282, (Accessed November 4, 2011).
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Antibiotic Resistance - Does the use of antibiotics to promote growth pose a public health risk?: (Accessed Nov. 10, 2010)
  7. National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Antibiotic Resistance- How do resistant bacteria spread from animals to humans? Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). June 1, 2005. (Accessed November 9, 2011)
  8. National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Antibiotic Resistance – What is the human health consequence of increasing antibiotic resistance if foodborne bacteria? June 1, 2005. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Accessed November 9, 2011)
  9. Nationwide Young Chicken Microbiological Baseline Data Collection Program,” Food Safety and Inspection Service, November 1999-October 2000. See also, K.L. Kotula and Y. Pandya, “Bacterial Contamination of Broiler Chickens before Scalding,” Journal of Food Protection 58, no 12 (1995): 1326-1329.
  10. Courierser and Couriersor, "Things you didn't know about factory farming. All Facts from Johnathan Safron Foer's book 'Eating Animals" (Foer p.47) (Acessed Nov. 9, 2011)
  11. “Preliminary Foodnet Data on the Incidence of Foodborne Illnesses – Selected Sites, United States, 2001,” Centers for Disease Control, MMWR 51, no. 15 (April 19, 2002): 325-329, (accessed November 4, 2011).
  12. "Why No Turkey?." Gentle Thanksgiving. Farm Animal Rights Movement, n.d. Web. 4 Nov 2011. (Accessed Nov. 9, 2011)
  13. “Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns,” UN News Center, Nov. 29, 2006 (Accessed Nov. 9, 2011)
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid
  16. “Report: Cars, Power Plants, Cause No Global Warming For Half a Century; Environmental Community Focusing on Wrong Activities in Fighting Climate Change,” EarthSave International (News Release), World-Wire, Aug. 29, 2005. (Accessed Nov. 9, 2011)
  17. Ibid
  18. "Livestock a Major Threat to Environment." FAO Newsroom. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, November 29, 2006. Web. 4 Nov 2011. (Accessed Nov. 9, 2011)
  19. "Fact Sheet, Food Labeling, Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms," USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.