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This Thanksgiving, Be Thankful for Science
How Research is Helping Thanksgiving Dinner Be More Sustainable


Traditional Thanksgiving dinner foods are getting more sustainable each year thanks to advancements in science and research.

On Thanksgiving, your table will likely be loaded with turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and all the traditional foods that have become Thanksgiving staples over the years. Thanks to the efforts of scientists and researchers worldwide, each year's feast becomes more sustainable than the last. In the spirit of the season, the Soil Science Society of America provided some insight on their Soils Matter blog about some of the advancements being made in food sustainability.

Cranberries are native to North America, and were used by Native Americans for food, medicine, and as a textile dye. The fruit is commercially grown in bogs, and while some are dry harvested by hand, the most common method is wet harvesting: flooding the bog and letting the cranberries float to the surface.

The downside to that is the use of phosphorus fertilizers in cranberry growth. Once the bog is flooded, the fertilizers have the opportunity to pollute neighboring bodies of water. The USDA is testing solutions to this, including adding phosphorous-absorbing salts just before the harvest. When the bog is flooded, the salts render the phosphorous inert. Small-scale tests of this have proved successful and scientists are moving on to experiment with this in larger fields.

On Thanksgiving Day 2015, Americans consumed approximately 45 million turkeys. That's a lot of birds, and a lot of birds means a lot of poultry litter, a combination of feces, feathers, and bedding materials. According to, one large, 16-week old tom turkey can produce more than a pound of manure daily.

Scientists are looking into how turkey litter can be used as fertilizer. Chicken litter has already proven effective as a fertilizer for cotton crops, and turkey manure has about the same nutrient content. The researchers are working on how to prevent the nutrients from leaching out of the litter and polluting waterways.

Whether in a pie or topped with marshmallows, sweet potatoes have been a staple of Thanksgiving dinner since the 1800s (though the marshmallows didn't come into play until around 1919). And, while the term "yam" is often used interchangeably with "sweet potato," they are actually two different, unrelated vegetables. Most grocery stores carry two different varieties of sweet potatoes, labeling the softer, orange-colored ones "yams" and the firmer, lighter-colored ones "sweet potatoes."

Africa and South America are the biggest producers of sweet potatoes, and Jamaican researchers are investigating how to better predict sweet potato yields to help achieve food and nutrition security. Another group of scientists is studying sweet potato genetics to improve genetic diversity and breeding efforts for the root vegetable.

The full posting from the Soil Science Society of American can be found at

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October 17, 2019, 9:05 am PDT

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