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A Better Way to Give Thanks

By Marina N. Bolotnikova

For the second time in less than a year, investigators have recently uncovered shocking footage of animal cruelty at a number of Butterball turkey facilities. Similar abuses exposed in December 2011 were so severe that they led to several criminal charges—a particularly telling detail considering that farm animals, excluded even from the paltry Animal Welfare Act, are extended virtually no legal protections.

Consumers have responded to both incidents, rightly, with outrage. Even a cursory glance at Butterball’s Facebook page will reveal what an absolute public relations disaster the scandal has been for the corporation. Among countless expressions of anger and disgust are calls for a boycott of Butterball and its abuses. It is tempting, both intellectually and emotionally, to hold a single party accountable for a crime that is deeply entrenched and dishearteningly widespread.

Yet this may not be the most prudent course of action for consumers to take. Certainly, those who have denounced Butterball are well intentioned. But the overwhelming majority of alternatives to the brand routinely engage in the same kinds of abuses: 99 percent of meat in the United States comes from factory farms like those operated by Butterball. Activists have chosen to expose Butterball not because it is unique in its treatment of animals, but because it is the world’s largest purveyor of turkey products and has the greatest potential to attract consumer attention to what is, tragically, an industry standard.

The question that we should instead be asking—and that Mercy For Animals activists undoubtedly hoped to provoke—is: Why do we continue to tolerate a food system that depends on the routine, unavailing abuse of animals? More precisely, why do we continue to take part in a food system that is required neither by our bodies nor our palates and that calls for the slaughter of beings with no less ability to experience pain than our own?

There is perhaps no better time than Thanksgiving to consider the far-reaching consequences of our choices. The first Thanksgiving was described by Captain John Woodlief as a “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God” for the arrival of the English settlers in the New World. Thanksgiving should be an occasion for us to express awe and gratitude for the beauty and abundance that the Earth offers us, as intended the New World’s first English settlers four centuries ago. Yet we are often loath to admit that many of our contemporary practices are in stark opposition to this aim. Modern animal agriculture represents perhaps the most gratuitous and tragic misuse of resources known to humankind: We presently use many times more resources than we can afford in order to produce animal-based foods and, each year, billions of voiceless farm animals endure the hideous consequences. It is all the more unfortunate that one embodiment of this system has become the centerpiece of Thanksgiving Day in the form of the Thanksgiving turkey.

This, then, is one of the unfortunate contradictions of Thanksgiving. A holiday whose purpose is to celebrate the world’s richness is used by corporations like Butterball to abuse the beings with whom we share the Earth and encourage irresponsible consumption that makes a mockery of the holiday’s true significance. It can be awfully taxing to come to grips with this reality, and even more so to acknowledge responsibility for the role that we play in sustaining it. Yet in acknowledging that it is fundamentally we, not Butterball or any other abusive corporation, who drive demand for and enable such glaring injustices, we also acknowledge that each of us has the power and obligation to end them. Too many of us have called for a boycott of particular culprits rather than the systemic injustice itself, lamenting that we have little alternative to such pervasive cruelty, yet this does a tremendous disservice to the power we have to choose how we wish to live our values. Rather than searching for the lesser of many evils, we should be choosing to forgo them altogether.

This Thursday, I encourage members of the Harvard community to make compassionate choices and leave turkey off of their Thanksgiving plates. Doing so is the only way we can ensure that our Thanksgiving celebrations do not come at the woeful expense of another. Such a break from tradition may feel startling, but let us not forget the occasion that spurred the first Thanksgiving in New England: a courageous break from the past. And fortunately for us, choosing compassion has never been easier. Americans are quickly recognizing how effortless and rewarding is plant-based eating. We have the enviable privilege of making choices that are consistent with our values, which is something to be truly thankful for.

Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a joint Slavic languages and literatures and history of science concentrator in Eliot House.

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