Stuff the Turkey

By Sophie le Clue 10 December, 2012

Is the turkey gobbling up too much water? Sophie le Clue explains

A 6-7kg turkey uses up 14,400 to 16,800 litres of water (72-84 bathtubs full)
US produced 272 million birds in 2010; China & HK are 2nd & 3rd largest export markets for US turkeys
Turkeys go east - China's turkey consumption up 588% from 2004-08

Gobbling water

As Christmas approaches, let’s give some thought to the ubiquitous symbol of festive consumption: the X’mas turkey. In Europe the turkey was introduced in the 16th century and soon replaced other large fowl such as peacocks and swans on festive occasions. In North America, the turkey, a native beast, became the centre piece of Thanksgiving when officially declared as a national celebration by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.  Today, Turkeys have come a long way and are reared en masse in a manner perhaps more akin to fast food than a festive treat.

Firstly, let’s remind ourselves that animal products represent some of the most water intensive consumer products.  While poultry has a smaller water footprint than others such as pork and beef, a kilo of turkey still represents around 2,400 litres , so for a reasonably sized beast of say 6-7 kg on the Christmas table, that’s 14,400 to 16,800 litres of water. Some birds however are fast-grown to be as large as 20kg – that’s a lot of water.

The majority of production and consumption is currently in the west, but consumption is rising in Asia.  In the US, total production in 2010 was 272 million birds.  At Thanksgiving alone, the US consumes about 46 million turkeys in a week. Not surprising that the United States is currently the largest turkey producer in the world.

Across the Atlantic, in the UK for example Christmas is the focus of turkey consumption with reportedly around 10 million birds consumed over the festive period, out of an annual production of around 17 million. In the run up to Christmas – just one of the UK’s most well know turkey producers processes 100 birds a minute.

Traditional turkey – the ghost of Christmas past

Consumer demand for cheap turkey, as well as other meats, has led to the industrialization of farming, such that the majority of these birds are now produced in what are rather clinically called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).  CAFOs fill our plates with genetically modified turkeys that in many cases are unable to breed without artificial insemination, are pumped full of antimicrobials and live in horrific conditions causing disease and distress to the unfortunate birds. But then that’s another subject entirely.  Importantly, such farming methods are relatively water intensive when compared to more traditional methods and can be highly polluting.

Using water

The water footprint of animal products is largely a result of i) feed conversion efficiency which measures the amount of feed to produce a given amount of product (in this case the turkey);  and ii) the use of feed concentrates resulting from the decoupling of animal rearing and crop production1. It’s the latter that increases the water footprint due to the water required to produce the feed.

Poultry farms also require a lot of high quality water for cleaning, cooling and evisceration which inevitably result in large quantities of waste water, typically with high BOD and COD.

Polluting water

“poultry manure contains considerable amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and other excreted substances such as hormones, antibiotics, pathogens and heavy metals which are introduced through feed”

Steinfeld et al., in FAO, 2006

On the pollution side,   according to FAO2, “poultry manure contains considerable amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and other excreted substances such as hormones, antibiotics, pathogens and heavy metals which are introduced through feed” (Steinfeld et al., in FAO, 2006). Leaching and runoff of these substances has the potential to result in contamination of surface water and groundwater resources.

Pesticides in many instances have been reported to enter ground and surface water impairing their function and use3 and inappropriate disposal of carcasses can contribute to water quality problems.

The good news is that turkey produced outside of CAFOs i.e. those that are free range, are less water intensive and most likely healthier for the consumer.

Turkeys go East

While historically turkey consumption has been the purview of the west, indications are that this Christmas tradition, or at least the taste for turkey is moving east…

According to the USDA, China’s turkey consumption increased by 588% from 2004 to 2008, from 8,000 metric tons to 55,000!4 In 2011, China and Hong Kong were the second and third largest export markets for US turkeys5.

Chinese people have replaced expatriates as the major consumers of turkey products and the bird is reportedly being adapted to suit local tastes. Production remains scattered in China but there seems to be interest from domestic producers and closer cooperation with foreign producers on the horizon.6 Given the highly polluting and water intensive nature of CAFOs, let’s hope China gets it right.

A Christmas wish

The water foot print and pollution exacerbating water scarcity are relatively new but important concerns in the debate on animal husbandry and join the more familiar issues such as animal welfare and public health (e.g. H5N1 in the case of poultry) as well as other environmental concerns. It’s worth remembering that a CAFO turkey which represents the majority, is likely bad for the environment, bad for the turkey and most importantly bad for you.

So, this year if you want to save water at Christmas, consider being alternative and think ‘free range’ , better ,“free range organic”, or perhaps more radically, no turkey at all – in other words, stuff the turkey!

1A comparative study on the water footprint of poultry, pork and beef in different countries and production systems PW Gerbens ar al, September 2011
2Poultry in the 21st century,, 2007,  Poultry Production and the Environment –  a review.
3Poultry in the 21st century, Poultry Production and the Environment –  a review.
4 Growth in China’s turkey industry, 2009 – click here
5National Turkey Federation , cited 2012
6Growth in China’s turkey industry, 2009,
Sophie le Clue
Author: Sophie le Clue
Sophie is a Director of ADMCF and is responsible for the Foundation’s environmental investments, including the identification/evaluation of projects and aligning financial investment with strategic philanthropic objectives. Sophie has worked for the past 20 years in the field of environmental protection and conservation, principally in the Asia Pacific region. She started her career in the UK working in London for an international engineering consulting firm as an environmental consultant, before moving to Hong Kong in 1992. Since then, Sophie has directed and managed consultant teams working on a range of projects for both public and private sector organizations, including environmental impact assessments, environmental management, policy and strategy development, as well as undertaking research projects in the Asia Pacific region.
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