Skip to main content

Actually Science SUPERSIZED Your Turkey Dinner

Your corn is sweeter, your potatoes are starchier and your turkey is much, much bigger than the foods that sat on your grandparents’ Thanksgiving dinner table. Most everything on your plate has undergone tremendous genetic change under the intense selective pressures of industrial farming. Pilgrims and American Indians ate foods called corn and turkey, but the actual organisms they consumed didn’t look or taste much at all like our modern variants do.
In fact, just about every crop and animal that humans eat has experienced some consequential change in its DNA, but human expectations have changed right along with them. Thus, even though corn might be sweeter now, modern people don’t necessarily savor it any more than their ancestors did.

“Americans eat a pound of sugar every two-and-a-half days. The average amount of sugar consumed by an Englishman in the 1700s was about a pound a year,” said food historian Kathleen Curtin of Plimoth Plantation, a historical site that recreates the 17th-century colony. “If you haven’t had a candy bar, your taste buds aren’t jaded, and your apple tastes sweet.”
The traditional Thanksgiving dinner reflects the enormous amount of change that foods and the food systems that produce them have undergone, particularly over the last 50 years. Nearly all varieties of crops have experienced large genetic changes as big agriculture companies hacked their DNA to provide greater hardiness and greater yields. The average pig, turkey, cow and chicken have gotten larger at an astounding rate, and they grow with unprecedented speed. A modern turkey can mature to a given weight at twice the pace of its predecessors.
In comparison with old-school agriculture or single-gene genetic modification, these changes border on breathtaking. Imagine your children reaching full maturity at 10 years old.
This human-directed evolution has generated animals and plants that share little more than a name with their wild or pre-industrial farm-domesticated relatives. The accumulation of agricultural breeding knowledge and consumer testing has resulted in plants and animals that are physically shaped by consumer tastes. Americans like a medium-size corn kernel, so kernels aren’t too big or small. American consumers like white meat, so turkeys are grown with larger breasts.
The breeding programs of the last half-century are, in some ways, a tremendous scientific accomplishment. For example, the United States pumped out 33 times more pounds of turkey at a lower cost to consumers in 2007 than our farmers did in 1929.
Turkeys more than doubled in size in that time from an average of 13 pounds to an average of 29 pounds, and as seen in the chart above, show no signs of stopping. If the trend continues, we could see an average turkey size of 40 pounds by 2020. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the largest wild turkey on record is 38 pounds.
In fact, in commercial and academic turkey-breeding programs, adult male turkeys, called toms, can reach 50 pounds at the tender age of five months, said John Anderson, a longtime turkey breeder at Ohio State University.
“We get 50 pounders at 20 weeks, but that’s at the top edge of our normal distribution,” Anderson said. “We’ve got some adult male-line birds that went over 80 pounds.”

Sweet_thanksgivingfin_2Anderson, who has bred the birds for 26 years, said the key technical advance was artificial insemination, which came into widespread use in the 1960s, right around the time that turkey size starts to skyrocket. The reason is that turkeys over 30 pounds are “inefficient” breeders: It’s difficult for them to actually perform the natural mating act. With artificial insemination, the largest birds can still be used as sires, even if they have a hard time walking, let alone engaging in sexual reproduction.
“You can spread the one tom around better. It adds a whole new level of efficiency. You can spread him over more hens,” Anderson said. “It takes the lid off how big the bird can be. If the size of the bird keeps them from mating, then you’re stuck.”
This process, compounded over dozens of generations, has yielded turkeys with genes that make them very big. In one study in the journal Poultry Science, turkeys genetically representative of old birds from 1966 and modern turkeys were each fed the exact same old-school diet. The 2003 birds grew to 39 pounds while the legacy birds only made it to 21 pounds. Other researchers have estimated that 90 percent of the changes in turkey size are genetic.
Perhaps the most obvious change in turkey genetics is that, unlike the colorful pictures we all drew in elementary school, modern, factory-farmed birds are all white. The Broad Breasted White turkey became the dominant commercial breed in the middle of the 20th century.
These fast-growing, big birds are more energy efficient than their forebears. They can convert 2.5 pounds of feed into a pound of body weight. Legacy breeds take a longer time to add weight and can need over 4 pounds of feed to add a pound of weight.
But all that bulk comes with consequences. Commercial turkeys can’t fly and researchers have even invented a way of quantifying how impaired the birds’ walking has become. The 1-to-5 scale ranges from “birds whose legs did not have any defect” to bowlegged birds who have “great difficulty walking.” After 30 years of breeding, Ohio State’s big birds average a 3.
The birds also have a hard time regulating their own food intake. In essence, they eat too much and get fat.
“Commercial broiler breeder strains, selected for rapid growth and high meat yields, do not adequately regulate voluntary feed intake commensurate with their energy needs,” wrote two USDA scientists last year. “Consequently, these birds must be given a limited amount of feed to avoid overconsumption that can lead to excessive accumulation of energy stores [fat tissue].”
And some food lovers argue that fast growth and genetic change have robbed turkey meat of its distinctive taste. Some are turning to heritage-breed turkeys like the Blue Slate variety that pack pre-industrial genomes.
“One thing I would say about a modern turkey is that they have a lot less flavor,” said food historian  Curtin. “If you’ve ever had a chance to taste a heritage breed, there’s subtleties in turkey.”
Turkey isn’t the only element of the iconic Thanksgiving dinner that science has given an overhaul. Corn breeding has made corn six times sweeter than the variations that the Pilgrims probably encountered back in 1620.


Popular posts from this blog

LG’s first flexible OLED phone due before the year is out

LG plans to launch a flexible OLED smartphone before the end of the year, the company’s VP of mobile has confirmed, though it’s unclear to what extent the work-in-progress handset will actually flex. The OLED panel in question is the handiwork of LG Display according to VP of LG mobile Yoon Bu-hyun, the WSJ  reports, with the proposed device set to launch sometime in Q4. LG Display’s work on flexible OLEDs has been underway for some time, though the company’s efforts have perhaps been overshadowed somewhat by rival Samsung’s YOUM development. Last year, according to a Korea Times report, LG Display was preparing for

Bing Apps for Windows 8 get major updates

Late least year, Microsoft rolled out a half dozen Bing Apps for Windows 8 users, each one focused on a specific category, such as travel and sports. The apps were designed to offer “immersive vertical experiences,” and now, about six months later, a big line of updates for them is being pushed out. Users can grab the updates now by heading into the Windows Store and selecting the updates notification.
Flexible displays are the Future of IT Industry! A part from 4k and smart home appliances, the CES 2013 saw a lot of attention being drawn towards bendable, flexible displays. The elasticised display idea isn’t something new as we have seen hoards of device concepts being crafted around flexible, bendable and even foldable displays. These concept devices give us a futuristic feel, be it a flexible phone to be worn around the wrist or a phone that opens up to turn into a tablet or PSP-like device. But how far is this future? Nokia has been toying with the idea ever since we remember. The technology sounds very fascinating and the possibilities and the extent to which bendable displays could be used are vast and leave us spellbound. However, these have always been concepts and we haven’t seen any device materialise in the real world. There have been several technologies that were conceived in these years and all have been put to their practical use. But the bendable d