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Thanksgiving & Climate Change: How it impacts our food production, supply chains and travel


A family sitting down at dinner with a massive turkey on the table. Behind them is a green backdrop with a pattern of yellow corn. On this backdrop is written, "Climate Crisis." This text is connected to a white line with two airplanes on either side of the image. At the forefront of the image is a lone tractor working in a field.
Collage created by Christina Hahn from images courtesy of Unsplash contributors: Richard Bell, Claudio Schwarz, Amarnath Trade, National Cancer Institute, and Estudio Bloom

Good food is the most enjoyable and least controversial aspect of celebrating Thanksgiving for most Americans. Though gathering with extended family can be anxiety-inducing and the historical, colonial legacy of the holiday harrowing; the one thing we can always rely on is the comfort of good food with those we love. Unfortunately, that may not always be the case. The UN’s IPCC Climate Change 2021 Report, UNEP’s Emissions Gap 2021 Report, and the UNEP’s Adaptation Gap 2021 Report make it clear that we are quickly hurtling towards the Bad Place. Between climate change, the energy crisis and breakdown in the supply chain; there are growing hidden costs to the way we celebrate Thanksgiving. Food is a central part for many American families and the future of food consumption as we know it is distressing to say the very least.


Our country is grappling with several economic and environmental catastrophes at once. There is a nation-wide labor shortage, breakdown in the supply chain, high gas prices, inflation, pandemic and a global energy crisis. All these factors compounded will affect our Thanksgiving plans whether we realize it or not.


In using Thanksgiving as a backdrop for discussing the interconnected challenges of combating the negative effects of climate change, we must also recognize that Thanksgiving is a symbol of colonization and historical violence against Native and Indigenous people. Climate change through the lens of Thanksgiving is particularly poignant because Native and Indigenous communities have historically been leaders of environmentalism and the original protectors of this land.


Today, we will be discussing travel, food production, food preparation, the food chain, and the data behind it all. We will look at how our plans will impact our environment and how our environment will impact our plans.


Thanksgiving Carbon Breakdown: Food Preparation, Food Chains, and Travel

Electric Feel-d: How we prepare food matters

When it comes to climate change data regarding our food, we tend to end the calculation of our carbon footprint as soon as our food enters the threshold of our homes. That is to say, we think about the transportation costs for food, but not what happens next. A research team at Carnegie Mellon University calculated the carbon footprint of a model Thanksgiving meal, which included energy use and carbon emissions created through the process of meal preparation. From this study, they found that “Production of the food combined with preparation of the meal contributes about 50 pounds of CO2 on average across the country.” - Dr. Paul Fischbeck, Professor of Engineering & Public Policy and Social & Decision Sciences.

“Production of the food combined with preparation of the meal contributes about 50 pounds of CO2 on average across the country.” - Dr. Fischbeck (CMU)

In America, there are significant differences between using a gas versus electric oven or range depending on the energy landscape of the state. In states with abundance in hydropower or other alternative energy, using an electric stove results in lower CO2 emissions. However in states that have a heavy reliance on coal power, using an electric stove actually increases CO2 emissions. This implies that blanket bans on gas appliances may not necessarily lead to immediate reductions in carbon emissions, rather that all states must move to diversify their energy sources and divest from fossil fuel reliance first.


2FoodChainz: How our food is produced & the supply chain it relies on matters

Now that we’ve talked about the variance in carbon emissions of the ovens we use, let’s shift our focus to what actually goes inside those ovens. In this section, we break down the carbon footprint of the star of a traditional Thanksgiving meal: the turkey. It takes hours to prepare and oven-roast to browned perfection. Like everything else on the dinner table, the cost of turkey is rising and the reason is far more complicated than inflation. It’s the future of our food supply chain.


If you haven’t paid much attention to the agricultural trends then you may be surprised to learn that America runs on corn. Some obvious uses are corn flour and sweet corn. However, corn is also produced for livestock feed, ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, and bio-based plastics. It is not only Americans who are highly dependent on the crop’s growth but other countries as well. According to data provided by Grains.org, the United States exports 69.8 million metrics of corn to 73 countries. An incredible amount of U.S. land is allotted for corn growth. To put this into perspective, Jonathan Foley, Executive Director at Project Drawdown wrote in an article for Ensia that, “In the United States, corn uses more land than any other crop, spanning some 97 million acres — an area roughly the size of California.”


Corn has proven to be a great source of energy. Livestock, including commercial turkeys, in the U.S., is largely corn-fed. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that corn is the main ingredient in livestock feed. Then about 30 percent of corn production is used to produce ethanol which is used for gasoline and alcohol. Less than 10 percent of corn is used for high-fructose corn syrup or sweeteners.


Though America does run on corn there are a number of reasons why we should rethink our dependence on it. Firstly, the sheer lack of biodiversity will pose a threat to our food system that is already facing its own troubles. In an interview with Mother Jones, Senator Corey Booker expressed how pressing the matter is, “We will not solve that [making food the central policy of the progressive agenda] unless we start focusing on the American food system”. Secondly, hyper dependence on a singular crop makes the country vulnerable to economic downturn. Jonathan Foley also presents concerns about how susceptible corn is to the market. In the same article, he writes, “Given enough time, most massive monocultures fail...under these conditions, a single disaster, diseases, pest or economic downturn could cause a major disturbance in the corn system”.

“Given enough time, most massive monocultures fail...under these conditions, a single disaster, diseases, pest or economic downturn could cause a major disturbance in the corn system”. - Jonathan Foley

Growing corn using this method and at this rate has major environmental ramifications. One example of this is that the fertilizer used to grow all this corn pollutes the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in chemicals feeding an algae bloom bigger than the size of Connecticut. Another example from research published by Nature Sustainability, is that “...corn production accounts for 4,300 premature deaths related to air pollution every year in the United States.” Studies on tracking the footprint of air pollution haven’t been as extensively produced as those on carbon footprints, factors such as fertilizer & gas use, pesticide production, and even dust entering the air from tilling impact air quality. It is alarming consequences like these that should make us reconsider our corn production and food systems altogether.


Finally, we want to add that though it is important for us to identify and stop harmful agricultural and environmental practices, it is equally as important to start employing beneficial practices, especially practices that have already been pioneered and used by Indigenous communities. Contrary to the “untouched land” myth perpetuated by early European colonizers, Indigenous people were actively shaping their environment and practicing sustainable agriculture and land stewardship. From their research and work in intercropping, polycultures, water management, agroforestry, and permaculture, Native and Indigenous people have built the foundations for modern sustainable agriculture. It is critical for American policymakers to listen to Native and Indigenous voices and follow their leadership as we address the impact of unsustainable food production practices on our climate.

It is critical for American policymakers to listen to Native and Indigenous voices and follow their leadership as we address the impact of unsustainable food production practices on our climate.
A Thousand Miles: How we travel matters

So, we’ve covered how our Thanksgiving meal gets to the table, but how about the costs of getting the people around the table? Whether it be by car, bus or plane millions of Americans are traveling for their Thanksgiving plans. Especially since many folks were trepidatious about getting together in 2020. Now that the vaccine and booster shots are readily available, families are more comfortable celebrating the way they did prior to the pandemic. However, the cost of travel is on the rise. With the energy crisis rearing its ugly head, gas prices across the U.S. are averaging at $3.40 a gallon, some of the highest prices we’ve seen in the past seven years. This is a startling jump from this time last year when the average cost of regular gas was $2.12.


The 60% increase doesn’t just impact travelers but distributors as well. It is adding pressure to a struggling supply chain. The research team from Carnegie Mellon was thorough in calculating the carbon footprint of Thanksgiving. According to their report, “four guests each flying 600 miles roundtrip has a carbon footprint over ten times that of the Thanksgiving meal”. Since most people gain a pound or two over the course of the weekend, Ellis Robinson who authored the report estimates that flights home cause 20,000 tons of additional carbon emissions. Yup, even going back home after living our best lives contributes to carbon emissions.


Our Climate Future: It’s Jeopardy!

The future of agriculture in the U.S. and abroad is in jeopardy. Climate change is at the center of these glaring problems. The warming climate affects agriculture production which in turn affects the food supply. During this year’s UN annual climate summit we learned that “each degree-Celsius increase in global mean temperature would, on average, reduce global yields of wheat by 6.0 percent, rice by 3.2 percent, maize by 7.4 percent, and soybean by 3.1 percent.” Even with consensus and a commitment to change from world leaders, we are still looking at years of erratic weather patterns and food shortages.

Before you cancel your flight and abstain from giant flightless bird in the name of being environmentally conscious; remember that the onus of these issues also directly falls on governments and major corporations. Two powerful entities that have the means to affect actual change yet forgone the opportunities to do so in the name of profit. Both have a long history of making irresponsible decisions that have irreversible consequences. This existential crisis was born out of systematic and institutional mishandlings. There needs to be serious concerted policy changes implemented by said governments and major corporations.


In America, we are socialized to believe in the sole responsibility and unrealistic power of the individual. Who can blame us? Many in our generation grew up watching Disney Channel stars singing about how if we could recycle enough, we could save our planet. One-person-show documentaries and brand ambassadors have us believing that if we, as individuals, just strive hard enough, we can bring back our environment from the brink of collapse. A whole greenwashing eco industry has been spun up around directing us on how we could help save the planet by shopping sustainably, reducing meat consumption and reusing grocery bags. To be clear, these are all great habits to incorporate into our lives and certainly can make a difference; but it is not enough.


As we have explained throughout this post, our individual actions and ability to contribute to or decrease our carbon footprints live in a much larger ecosystem of systematic problems. These systematic problems must be resolved through systematic solutions. It is critical for us to collectively seek legal action and policy change. This can mean calling your representatives and making sure that they know that we want them to prioritize climate change or even helping elect new voices to the progressive field that will center the preservation of our shared future. It is what we, here at Bluebonnet Data, try to specialize in.


On this day, we hope that you will be able to spend time with your loved ones and express gratitude for the ways in which we have benefited from how this land has provided for us. However, it is not enough to express gratitude, we must also reciprocate in this relationship and ensure that we are working to elect and amplify leaders who will work to preserve our environment. It is critical for us to follow the lead and solution-making of Native and Indigenous leaders as we move from an individual-oriented to a collective-driven way of tackling climate change in a systematic way.

It is critical for us to follow the lead and solution-making of Native and Indigenous leaders as we move from an individual-oriented to a collective-driven way of tackling climate change in a systematic way.

We also hope that this is a time of reflection where we can rethink American history through the lens of justice and begin shaping our American future in a way that preserves and honors Native and Indigenous people and leaders, our shared environment, and our shared future. If you'd like some ideas on how to start, check out what our co-workers wrote on service and volunteering as a non-capitalist antidote to Black Friday.


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About the Authors

Mare Ahmed is the Operations Manager at Bluebonnet Data. She works to bridge the gap between progressive politics and tech. When she isn’t breaking down the perils of the world you can find her analyzing an HBO show.


Christina is the Communications Director at Bluebonnet Data. She is a talented heckler and aspires to be a design-justice practitioner who emboldens new voices and critically necessary perspectives in our shared political futures. It would honestly make her day if you followed her onTwitter.

 

If you like what you’ve read and want to learn more, you can reach us at info@bluebonnetdata.org. Or, want smart, passionate, young folx to help with your data now? Bring on a Bluebonnet team!


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