Turkey for Christmas?

Traditional Turkey Farming

In this guest article, Virginia Bell investigates industrial turkey farming.

‘We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that “not one of them is forgotten before God” (Lk 12:6). How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?’

Laudato Si’ Encyclical, paragraph 221.

Turkey Farming

Turkey for Christmas has only been a widespread tradition for the past 70 years. If we are to take Laudato Si’ seriously, we should ask ourselves ‘is turkey for dinner an ethical choice?’

The reality of intensive turkey farming is that thousands of birds are tightly packed into industrial-sized sheds, with no ability to express natural behaviour. Automatic mechanisms control their feed, heating and light. They will all be either chronically disabled, damaged, diseased and/or in chronic pain due to selective breeding for unnatural weight gain and due to the rearing conditions. Too fat to fly, too disabled to even walk without difficulty. Driven somewhat mad by this imprisonment, they can start attacking each other. Farmers ‘manipulate’ male birds for semen, then ‘manipulate’ females to impregnate them with the semen. The entire experience is invasive and terrifying for the birds. Chicks are hatched in incubators. They search for their mothers but never find them. They have no parental guidance to find food and may starve. Bits are cut off them for various reasons, from the beak, snood, wings and toes with no pain relief, leaving them in agony after the traumatic experience of the mutilation. During heatwaves they will bake in their sheds. Many die this way. At slaughter time, several at one time are grabbed by the legs and thrown into crates on lorries. The journey to the slaughterhouse is so bad that some don’t survive. At the slaughterhouse they are hung upside down by their feet on a moving belt. They pass through an electric current which is meant to stun, but may only cause an electric shock. Then they pass a slashing knife which could miss their throats and catch their faces, and they could go into the boiling water having been electrically shocked, knifed and still conscious.11 million turkeys were killed for meat in 2021 in the UK [1].

Unsustainable and Wasteful

Turkey manure causes land, water and air pollution [2]. Turkeys are fed with soy from South America, which is linked to deforestation, pollution, land destruction, loss of biodiversity and climate change. Land, water and food is wasted at an alarming rate to grow animals. Even though 700 – 800 million people are hungry or starving, yet 70 – 80% of the world’s soy crop is fed to turkeys and other farm animals, instead of to humans [3]. Feeding the soy to animals first instead of directly to humans results in the loss of about 90% of the calories and proteins that the feed contains, giving back only about 10% [4].


Turkey farms encourage the spread of infections and are a reservoir of diseases, some of which are dangerous for humans like salmonella enteritidis and bird flu. Bird flu can be deadly for humans. Our next pandemic could come from a turkey farm where zoonotic pathogens could jump the species barrier [5]. New outbreaks of bird flu in poultry farms and captive birds as well as in wild bird populations are constantly being reported, with over 200 cases confirmed across the UK in the last 12 months [6]. All domestic infected birds are culled to prevent further infection.

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotics are routinely used to combat diseases and infections that thrive in the filthy and unhygienic conditions of factory farms. This has contributed to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – superbugs. Studies show a positive correlation between antimicrobial usage and the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance [7]. This contributes to the increased and growing risk of humans contracting life-threatening diseases for which antibiotics are no longer effective. 

Try the Vegan Options

Respecting animals, respecting the planet and respecting other humans are all intimately interlinked. If we abuse one, we harm all three.

If you are interested in delicious vegan alternatives to turkey there are plenty of mouthwatering recipes online (just search “vegan christmas recipes” in your search engine).

Virginia Bell, December 2022

Editor’s Note: Since COVID-19 there has been a scientific interest in understanding the risk factors associated with the emergence of a new pandemic. Intensive farming is often cited as a major risk factor. However direct comparison of high-intensity livestock farming and low-intensity livestock farming suggests both routes could support the emergence of viral pathogens of zoonotic origin: low-intensity livestock farming is likely lower yielding and would require a higher animal population and more land (meaning more habitat loss and greater exposure risks) [8]. Evidently reduction in overall meat consumed would allow these pressures to reduce to a point where a low-intensity livestock system might become acceptably low risk.

[1] RSPCA briefing on turkey farming and welfare, 2021, https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/turkeys/farming and https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/turkeys/keyissues

[2] Nowak et al., “Cytotoxicity of Odorous Compounds from Poultry Manure”, 2016, Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016 Oct 26;13(11):1046. doi: 10.3390/ijerph13111046, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5129256/

[3] Ritchie and Roser, “Forests and Deforestation”, 2021, Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/forests-and-deforestation’ [Online Resource], https://ourworldindata.org/soy

[4] Cassidy et al., “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare”, 2013, Environ. Res. Lett. 8 034015 https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015

[5] World Health Organization Fact Sheet on Influenza (Avian and other zoonotic), November 2018, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/influenza-(avian-and-other-zoonotic)

[6] “Bird flu (avian influenza): latest situation in England”, DEFRA press release on 11 December 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/bird-flu-avian-influenza-latest-situation-in-england

[7] Horie et al., “Risk Factors for Antimicrobial Resistance in Turkey Farms: A Cross-Sectional Study in Three European Countries”, Antibiotics 2021; 10(7):820 https://doi.org/10.3390/antibiotics10070820, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8300668/

[8] Bartlett et al., “Understanding the relative risks of zoonosis emergence under contrasting approaches to meeting livestock product demand”, R. Soc. open sci.9: 211573, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.211573, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.211573#d1e760

Photo Credit: http://www.acredibledreamer.com/ Photo taken at the Open Air Museum in Osiek nad Notecia, Wielkopolski, Poland.