Saturday, November 5, 2011

Deconstructing your Thanksgiving plate

If you LOVE Thanksgiving, and it's your favorite holiday, and you enjoy the cornucopia of fruit and vegetables and the mouth-watering turkey, then STOP reading this now.  For the brave souls willing to subject their plates to deconstruction and sacrifice their appetites for the meager food for thought, carry on.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, some of us are already watching the weekly circulars and planning the holiday menu in our heads. What will be on your plate this year?  The traditional mashed potatoes, stuffing, creamed corn, butternut squash, cranberry sauce and, of course, turkey, perhaps? While this tradition seems unchanging in our eyes, as we look forward to bubbie's disintegrating holiday turkey recipe card, I assure you that much has changed since 1621 when the Plymouth Pilgrims broke bread with the Native Americans in gratitude for the year's harvest.  In fact, while the plate looks similar between now and 20 years ago, the components of these plates are as different as can be. Your plate today most likely contain sweet corn which is about 6x as sweet as the variety that the Pilgrims ate, starchier potato that has less sugar and water content, a virus-resistant squash, a giant turkey with abnormally big breast and scrawny extremities, and cranberries from cans - for some.

Sorry to disappoint you, but as a scientist, I generally do not have a problem with genetically modified crops.  After all, I've done cloning, and genetically engineered virus DNAs in the pursuit of understanding how we can come up with better therapeutics.  As a given, I believe that biotechnology has a place in agriculture and, ergo, on my plate.  Against a declining land area available for crops and livestock, biotechnology has increased the yield of produce, improved nutritional quality of food and reduced crop losses. Where I grew up, the farmers are the ones who beg for help with with the institution of genetic engineering as typhoons, bugs and diseases bombard their crops. And while backyard farming is ideal for folks who have green thumbs to match their yards, the truth remains that biotechnology helps feed the nearly 7 billion people in this world, 3 billion of whom are micronutrient malnourished. I can understand the consumer skepticism, for, while genetically modified plants are beneficial to farmers, it is not necessarily so for consumers. But science has plowed through. For one, crops have been biofortified with beta-carotene to address the vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, saving children from the threat of blindness and premature death. 

          But, you see, my real beef is with the bird. With most Americans preferring white meat over dark meat, industry has called upon science's aid to selectively breed big breasted birds and poultry diet engineered to promote breast growth.  Mind you, the pop-up timer is not genetically encoded. Today's turkeys are so different that if Ben Franklin was alive, he would be wondering what we did to the "respectable Bird" that he knew. We’ve created Franken-bird! These industry-bred turkeys have unusually large breasts, which look like round bowling balls, so disproportionate with their bodies that they cannot stand, walk or mate.  They just sit in their barn, they breed by artificial insemination, and with clipped beaks, they eat, eat, eat!  While free-range heritage turkeys take about 28 week to mature, their Super-sized, abnormally fast-growing cousins reach the slaughterhouse in just 12 weeks. Now, don't you wish you stopped reading when I warned you?

            I am grateful that my religion require that animals must be killed with respect and compassion. But I can carry this further, by caring how the meat is raised which is part of teaching kindness to animals.  So, on Thanksgiving, I might pay a bit more for Kosher free-range turkey. If not, there's always Tofurkey, and pile on another serving of the transgenic squash and silently give thanks for its resistance to the squash mosaic virus.


  1. Hmmmm...ok. But I still don't get kind/humane treatment of animals when they'll be killed/eaten anyways.

  2. Hi John. I think that outside of religious practice, it's simply a personal choice. So, view this post as me opining (or ranting) rather than proselitizing.