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The Policy Mess Behind the Thanksgiving Feast

American agriculture is in crisis.

Donald Trump "pardons" the turkey.

Strip away the mythmaking and genocide erasure, and American Thanksgiving is a simple harvest festival, celebrated in various forms by cultures all over the world and across human history. This year’s harvest—threshed, picked, slaughtered, butchered, packaged, shipped, and finally cooked—takes place under particularly precarious conditions: a warming atmosphere containing a novel, deadly pathogen. As many are starting to realize, the feast isn’t a break from those realities: From green beans to gravy, it’s a product of them.

Thanksgiving, in the hearts of many American diners, isn’t Thanksgiving without the turkey. And cheap meat for all—or at least for far more people than previously had access to such luxuries—was one of the crowning achievements of American twentieth-century industrial agriculture. Yet meat farming and processing is also one of the nation’s most troubled industries.

In the past few decades, global land clearing to cultivate crops for animal feeds has decimated global biodiversity. Massive buildings crammed with hundreds of thousands of animals that serve as premier disease incubators, and cramped processing plants low on regulation, have made the industrial meat supply chain a monumental pandemic risk and produced a handful of near misses on the road to Covid-19. Just as monoculture of a single crop makes an entire harvest vulnerable to disease, when livestock sectors engineer the system to process billions of near-identical genetic specimens in perpetuity—99 percent of the world’s turkeys, for example, are derived from a single breed—mass production comes with terrifying vulnerabilities. “As corporations raze forests, slaughter animals, and spew out greenhouse gases,” TNR’s Kate Aronoff wrote in May, “they’re bringing us closer to a future that could well produce outbreaks even deadlier than the coronavirus pandemic.”

The problem is exacerbated by the meat industry’s cavalier approach to worker safety. After the avian flu H5N1 hit in 2005, federal authorities worried about another epidemic warned companies with employees working close together to invest in personal protective equipment. These warnings were mostly ignored. Governors and legislatures in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin did little as slaughterhouses became epicenters of rural Covid-19 outbreaks and have ultimately contributed to an estimated 8 percent of early coronavirus infections nationwide. At least 50,000 meatpacking workers have become infected, and 250, at a minimum, have died.

For the industry, there will be no lessons learned: Just as pharmaceutical companies have limited interest in developing long-term vaccine projects that don’t deliver the near-term profit of other drugs, agribusiness has no incentive whatsoever to prevent the next pandemic. In fact, pandemics can be good for business: Under no pressure from Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to spend money protecting workers, and with the president designating meat-processing plants “critical,” Tyson posted higher profits in 2020 than the year before. This ruthless cycle of corporate and livestock concentration followed by both animal and human deaths will continue until penalties levied by antitrust and labor regulation outweigh the windfalls of disaster capitalism.

Environmental regulations need to be considered, as well. The uncontainable amounts of manure produced in large-scale livestock farms emit methane and nitrogen oxide, dangerous greenhouse gases; when the manure is then recklessly spread onto fields of flat, barren farmland as fertilizer, the runoff produces algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico that extinguish marine life and poison both streams and oceans. That’s not to mention the role livestock fecal contamination has played in recent E. coli outbreaks.

At the banquet of destruction and disorder that is our food system, meat is indeed the centerpiece. But unsustainable cultivation practices for fruits, vegetables, and grains at unprecedented scales in California’s Central Valley and the Midwestern corn belt are a problem, too. Oligarchic influence on state and federal water infrastructure is allowing wanton aquifer depletion, while overfertilization, monocropping, and impinging on embankments and river ecologies leads to soil erosion and salination. Single-crop fields, particularly when entire counties (or even states) grow only a few varieties of the same crop, are contributing to the rise of superweeds and pests. Rising temperature exacerbates drought, while flood catastrophe is already growing more frequent, and California is due for an unimaginable inundation. Agrochemicals poisoning farmworkers and their families also contaminate air and drinking water, a public expense to remove, at best, and a public health hazard at worst.

The American grain and fruit juggernaut—which also feeds the beef, poultry, and pork industry—is predicated on the use of chemicals to try to contain weeds, pests, and disease without any extra labor or ecological consideration. The keystone of that system is Roundup, enough of which is sprayed annually to cover every acre of farmland in the world with half a pound of the herbicide. Its present in the urine of 93 percent of Americans and most of the air and freshwater of farm states. Its in the feed of just about every farm animal in the country (theres evidence its making them sick as well).

Up until a few years ago, the scientific community presumed glyphosate—the chemical in Roundup—to be harmless to insects and other animals because it targets an enzyme only found in plants and microorganisms,” as researchers from University of Texas at Austin put it in a 2018 paper. But those same researchers found that most bee gut bacteria contain the enzyme targeted by glyphosate,” warning that exposing bees to glyphosate alters the bee gut community and increases susceptibility to infection by opportunistic pathogens,” exposing a possible role of this chemical in colony decline.” Colony decline, in turn, endangers future harvests, which currently depend on rotating, rented supersquads of honey bee pollinizers for fruit and vegetables. The worst part is that glyphosate is certainly less harmful than chemicals like dicamba and 2,4-D which, as Roundup’s efficacy begins to flag, are being recirculated into the agronomic system.

As the effects of these unsustainable practices and global warming accumulate, harvests are growing more uncertain. Thanksgivings traditions of sloth and excess may soon be a whimsical memory. But policy helped create these problems; slowly, policy can unwind them. A reinvigorated regulatory state could ban harmful chemicals in the name of human and environmental safety, break up meat oligopolies, and speed investigations and prosecutions for price fixing and other misbehavior. The Department of Labor could do more to protect agricultural and meat-processing workers and their unions. An agriculture-focused trust-busting office gutted during the Trump years needs to be restored and empowered. And the Environmental Protection Agency needs to target industrial animal operations for restrictions under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. The Department of Agriculture can retire millions of acres of land not necessary for food, in the quick stroke of a pen making incredible progress rebuilding biodiversity in prairie and desert ecosystems we all depend on. And California needs water rationing that prioritizes human subsistence over the profits of a single family of billionaires. The possibilities are endless and inspiring.

Like other environmental crises, the history of bad American agricultural policy is filled with racism. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill this week that would reallocate farmland to Black farmers at an unprecedented scale, reversing a trend more than a century long of discrimination and violence, aided and abetted by the federal government. Just Tuesday, a new study estimated that 1 percent of the world’s landowners—the same corporations that create and profit from pandemics and climate change—dominate 70 percent of global farmland.

As megacorporations and asset managers tighten their grip on the world’s depleting resources, confronting the ugly legacy of white supremacy and returning control to communities who care about their children’s futures should in fact be one of the most urgent priorities for both the environment and food security. One day, a new generation could gather at tables to celebrate these decisions, grateful they have less to fear than we have today.