I often assert that the climate crisis is affecting every part of our lives, and it was not hard to make this case when I looked into Thanksgiving. How are our traditional Thanksgiving foods faring in the climate crisis?
Let’s start with turkey. Wild turkeys, if you are lucky enough to eat one for Thanksgiving, roam North America from Florida to Alaska, despite a dangerous near-extinction in the 1930s that was reversed when conservation efforts restored and protected their habitat.
Today, wild turkeys are adapting to a warmer climate. According to Audubon's climate models, wild turkeys will lose 87% of their current winter range by 2080. There is evidence that turkeys are already moving north and becoming more of a Canadian bird. Weather extremes are hard on turkeys; it is not unusual for a surprisingly early warming in spring to give way to heavy snows and surprisingly late winter-like conditions, which can be fatal to turkey chicks.
If you are eating a domestic turkey, is that better or worse for the planet than, say, roast beef, fish or Tofurkey (a turkey substitute made from soy product)? As always when it comes to food, the issue is more about from whence and with what processing your food arrived on your plate. You could decide what to eat this Thanksgiving based simply on being sourced close by and minimally processed. It’s hard to beat the wild turkey by this measurement.
How about cranberries? As early as 1672, cranberries were recorded dietary fare with meat. Cranberries are ideally suited to many regions in the U.S. because they need four seasons to thrive. But, like just about every other crop, cranberries are vulnerable to changes and extremes.
They must be cultivated within “a pronounced and consistent seasonal pattern,” according to Stephen Ashley, a third-generation cranberry grower and owner of 18 acres of bogs. Both flooding and irrigating water treatments at critical junctures during the season are disrupted when drought, unseasonable heat and unexpected frosts make cranberries vulnerable to early sprouting and freezing buds.
One thing cranberries have going for them: they are native to North America. And wild (highbush) cranberries are all around us, if you care to do some foraging. If you do go for domestically grown cranberries this Thanksgiving, in keeping with our attempts to minimize distance traveled and processing, try finding cranberries made in Wisconsin and making your own sauce.
So what if we want to enjoy traditional North American fare, something that has been eaten for centuries or even millennia? The “three sisters” — corn, beans and squash — were grown by indigenous people well before colonists arrived on the scene. Growing them together utilizes indigenous agricultural wisdom that will serve well in a climate crisis.
The combination improves soil, reduces vulnerability to flood and storm, and provides nutritional variety including all nine amino acids and essential fatty acids. Squash, lying on the ground, provides a natural mulch, discourages weeds, retains moisture and keeps predators away. Bean vines climb up corn stalks, stabilizing them. Bean vines also feed nitrogen back into the soil.
Do you eat scalloped corn, pumpkin pie or bean stew for Thanksgiving? Maybe now’s the time to start.
One more note about Thanksgiving — it includes both “thanks” and “giving!” Don’t forget to eat with gratitude and generosity.
Here’s a good Thanksgiving poem: For sun and rain, For grass and grain/ For all who toil on sea and soil/ that we may have our daily food/ We give our loving thanks to you.
Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.