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What exactly is a ‘sustainable turkey’?

12/10/2020 By

Thanks to our friend and former colleague Peter Smith for addressing this seasonal burning issue. 

Knowing my interest in “procurement with purpose” and the sustainability agenda generally, a friend recently asked me the question “What exactly is a sustainable turkey?” with Thanksgiving and Christmas in mind. Their angle was that a turkey can’t be “sustainable” really, as we eat it and it’s gone!

I’m not sure that is really much to do with sustainability, but it was a great question as it did get me thinking about a number of different issues and arguments, which demonstrate just how complex and fascinating sustainability is as a topic.

Let’s start by thinking about animal welfare issues and the conditions in which the birds are bred and reared. That can range from genuine free-range approaches, with turkeys roaming around fields and experiencing considerable freedom, to much more intensive “battery farm” methods, which meat-eaters might not want to know too much about. But an organic-labelled turkey should mean the bird had access to the outdoors and have adequate scratching space, nesting areas and so on.

Then we need to look at what the birds have eaten. We might want to know that they are antibiotic free, for a start. Then, in most cases, producers will be using bought-in feed for the birds, and that’s where some serious “sustainability” issues can kick in. For organic birds, the feed should be plant-based and free from any animal products. But that’s not enough to assure ourselves of the turkey’s sustainability credentials, unfortunately.

A worrying article in the Guardian newspaper recently, headlined “Revealed: UK supermarket and fast food chicken linked to deforestation in Brazil” traced the supply chain for soya-based poultry feed back to the Cerrado area in Brazil, on the border of the Amazon rain forest. Here, soya production is linked to forest fires and clearance of trees for agriculture, with devastating impact on natural species and potentially contributing to climate change and water issues too. Soya beans are used by giant firms including Cargill to produce thousands of tonnes of feed for the billions of chickens (and turkeys) eaten in major western countries every year.

So, is your turkey contributing to this problem? And what about carbon emissions? That is not only relevant to the carbon involved in the supply chain for the feed we’ve discussed, but also in the heating and lighting involved in the farming and processing industries relating to poultry. Was your “sustainable” turkey reared on a farm powered by renewable sources — maybe solar panels on the roof? And how was it chilled? Millions of gallons of water would be saved if all producers used air-chilling rather than water to cool the birds.

Then we come onto circularity, a fascinating issue that is rapidly gaining a higher profile. That aims to get more value out of “waste,” or design it out of our processes altogether where possible. “Waste streams become value streams,” as Deborah Dull, one of the evangelists of circular thinking in the supply chain world, puts it. So how might that apply to the remains of our bird?

Well, first of all, eat everything you can to extract the maximum “value stream!” The UK tradition tends to be hot roast meat on Christmas Day, cold meat on the 26th and turkey curry on the 27th.  Then boil up the remains with some vegetables and herbs to make stock, which is great for future gravy, sauces and soups. (Yes, we do this in the Smith home!)

Then what is left — the bones and some not very pleasant remains — should go in your food waste bin, assuming your waste service provides that option. In most cases, that is turned into useful products, often relating to animal feed again, although there are some constraints about using animal products in feed.

Finally, a sustainable turkey would be shipped through the supply chain using the most emissions-efficient vehicles and sustainable packaging. We’ve seen positive moves in recent years in terms of organizations using less packaging, more recyclable packaging and more recently, developments in compostable materials. There are constraints in terms of food hygiene, as well as the physical protection that products need through the shipping process, of course. But as consumers, being aware of the issues around packaging is important as it remains both a major source of emissions and problems with disposal.

Understanding the often-complex turkey supply chain is typical of the challenges that procurement and supply chain professionals face. The pressure to understand the provenance of what we buy, not just in the food industry but everywhere, is only going to increase further. It is vital to understand the organizations that are involved all the way through the supply chain, the value they add, how they work, even who they employ, and much of this is increasingly driven by the sustainability agenda.

However, it also makes sense commercially. One of the disappointing aspects of the scandal in the UK around PPE (personal protective equipment) procurement is that the government buyers did not seem to ask questions about the margins being made by different players in the supply chain. We can sympathize with corners being cut in terms of process, given the urgency and the market chaos. But it is disappointing that the contracting appears to have shown little interest in understanding and managing the role of middlemen who appear to have creamed off huge amounts of money.

An absolutely core aim of procurement must therefore be to understand what lies behind our purchases, and many of the stories of Bad Buying in my recently published book relate back to buyers who didn’t show that understanding. That means getting into commercial aspects, as well as understanding our suppliers, the markets they operate in, and all those sustainability issues too. And of course, developments in technology is helping considerably. Effective tech that supports supply chain understanding, sustainability reporting and monitoring, as well as supplier/supply chain risk management and collaboration, is likely to be in increasingly high demand — and not just at Christmas!