Ever see a turkey in the wild in the Sierra foothills?
They have a slight resemblance to their cousins, the pheasants. And compared to the bird that likely graced your table on Thanksgiving they are downright scrawny.
Turkeys, as nature intended, were never large or plump enough to feed a gathering of 12 with all the white meat they desire and have enough leftovers for a week plus of meals.
So how did your typical turkey that ends up frozen at SaveMart go from an average of 16.8 pounds in 1960 based on United States Department of Agriculture statistics to 30.41 pounds in 2014?
That 81 percent increase in bird size is due to select breeding, fast growing larger birds with the help of artificial insemination. You could say it was basic gene pool manipulation to create a super race of turkeys. A crazed German dictator would have called them the “master race” of turkeys especially since the process is also used to produce more white meat than nature would in order to satisfy consumer demands. Today some activists might call such birds “Frankenstein turkeys.”
These are not the turkeys that Pilgrims had back on that autumn day of lore in 1621.
And, yes, they are not pure GMO — genetically modified organisms — but they are the same concept.
Virtually everything for your holiday feast — the wheat in your rolls, potatoes, corn, dairy whipped cream, and apple pie — is the result of someone monkeying around with nature.
Modifying crops has produced tastier, more abundant and disease resistant vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts that in many cases take less water to grow. The same is true of meat.
Where would we be if farmers hadn’t improved on nature?
First, there'd be a heck of a lot more of us farming. The 2010 Census showed there were 3.2 million people living on full-fledged farms in 2014, or just barely over 1 percent of the population. That’s down from 5.2 million or 2.2 percent of the nation’s population in 1986. Back in 1850, there were 4.9 million people listed in “farm occupation” or 64 percent of the nation’s 23 million people. The number in 1820 was 2.1 million out of 9.6 million Americans, or over 20 percent of the population. It takes significantly less people today to feed everyone else with the added bonus of the United States by far being the world’s largest exporter of agricultural products.
Second, you’d have a whole lot less money to spend on Apple products because real apples would cost a lot more. The USDA notes that back in 1930 the average American household was spending 24.2 of its gross income on food including dining out compared to less than 9 percent today. There’s a reason why apples, oranges, and nuts were considered “awesome must have” Christmas gifts not too many generations ago.
Third, and perhaps most important, there would be a lot more hunger.
Advances not just in the field but with how agricultural production is stored, processed, and packaged means we can feast not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas but in the depth of winter as well as the early spring when buds are just beginning to form and the early signs of vegetable and grain growth starts breaking through soil.
A big reason significantly less people are needed to feed the nation, food costs less, and we have food year round is because farmers have enhanced nature.
Science through GMO research builds on what farmers have done over the past 150 years working toward nature’s strengths overcome weaknesses. Crops that require less water, less pesticides, less fertilizer, and can produce larger yields are all possible.
The only way to raise the standard of living of people is to make sure basic needs can be addressed without breaking the proverbial bank or destroying the environment.
Farmers have been working toward that end for generations and in doing so have to produce more and more in order to make a decent living.
So as you devour your Thanksgiving leftovers, pause to give thanks to the farmers who have the foresight needed to feed the world.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.