I have always enjoyed Thanksgiving, a great time of reflection, and a holiday without too much bustle. In the days leading up, I love the process of my mom buying a turkey and cooking it up in a bounty of flavors. Some years, with family in town, we would have a bird close to or upwards of thirty pounds. While that seemed pretty normal to me growing up, I learned a few years ago that turkeys, and most livestock, for that matter, have experienced a rapid increase in size over the past few decades. Turkey earned its national reputation as a Thanksgiving meal somewhere in the mid-1800s, with a steady increase in demand since. In order to keep up with this demand, new scientific knowledge and methodology have allowed farmers to achieve more valuation and produce bigger birds.
In the wild, turkeys breed with any other compatible mate and can change partners every year. This random reproduction pattern leads to an array of different types of offspring. When two parents procreate, there is a cellular stage called meiosis. Simply put, both parents pass on a certain number of genes. All this DNA comes together, and the offspring will receive half of the total, the same amount as given by one parent. This is why kids rarely look identical to a single parent, since the child’s genetic info is a hybrid of both parents. With random chances, turkeys can vary each generation. There is nothing wrong with this method; most species reproduce in this or a similar way. My two sisters and I have more differences than similarities, despite us all having the same two parents. However, this is not ideal in business. Farmers want to generate the most revenue at the cheapest cost. Through genomics – the study of structure, function, and mapping of genomes (sets of genetics in an organism), turkeys have been bred in a way to produce meatier offspring.
Scientists have been able to identify size genetics and breed large turkeys with each other. Starting in the 1960s, larger males, known as Toms, were intentionally bred with large female hens. Their offspring turned out to be on the large end. Another process aimed at producing bigger birds involved outside help in reproduction itself. Humans would take seed from certain Toms with “bigger size” genetics and use it in all the hens. These processes have been repeated for several generations so that now most turkeys are double the size they were before this new technique. In 1966, turkeys weighed, on average, about 16.3 pounds, compared to 33+ pounds in the early 2000s. Some farms have gotten to the point where turkeys can naturally breed because they are all large enough to meet demand. While on a graph, the size could continue forever, realistically speaking, turkeys can only get so big. As of now, though, it is not known how large they can grow.
There are particular positives and drawbacks to the assisted reproduction, however. Fewer animals need to be killed to keep up with the food demand. And farmers do not need to spend and use as much food, such as corn and other grains. This equates to cheaper costs everywhere involving the product. However, while turkeys have more meat on them, their bodies have not adapted to this increase in weight. Many of their legs have trouble holding up, and some studies have shown reproductive or health problems, which could result in unhealthy food products that we consume. It is good to be explorative and maximize the resources God has given to us. We should not become too greedy, however, but rather be thankful for the advancements that science has achieved.