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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Turkey Diversity

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Don Bixby, executive directorof the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, about some of the problems with current turkey breeding practices. The problem is overbreeding, which is diminishing genetic diversity.


BIXBY: It's a sound that toms use when they're advertising for mates during the breeding season and to establish their territory.

CURWOOD: That's Don Bixby, executive director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, imitating a call that most of us never get to hear: the gobble of a male turkey.

(Turkey gobble imitation)

CURWOOD: In fact, most turkeys never get to hear the call, because courting and strutting don't take place in the giant poultry factories that produce the more than a quarter billion turkeys each year in the U.S. Caged turkeys have no territory and are so overbred for breast meat that they are physically incapable of breeding. This process, Mr. Bixby warns, is causing genetic variety in our domesticated turkeys to die out.

BIXBY: The selection factors for industrial turkeys are very, very narrow. The point is to raise as much meat or muscle as possible in the shortest period of time. And so, when you select for one thing you reject other things. The things that have been rejected include hardiness and disease and parasite resistance and ability to forage and reproductive efficiency. And we've substituted chemicals and antibiotics and intensive husbandry and very refined nutrition for those natural attributes.

CURWOOD: Now how does all this loss of genetic variation in domestic turkeys affect us?

BIXBY: Well, all biological systems are dependent upon genetic diversity to be stable, whether it's rainforests or wetlands or farms, which are also a biological system. And once you lose genetic diversity, you lose the ability to adapt to changes in the environment or, in the case of turkeys, to market changes or changes in production. And evidence is accumulating that they also have decreased immune system efficiencies that lead to both explained and unexplained outbreaks of disease that will wipe out a large population.

CURWOOD: So you're saying we're really at risk of suddenly waking up one morning and the U.S. turkey population is boom, gone.

BIXBY: It is certainly a possibility, and it has happened with several of our crop varieties. Potatoes, for instance, in the Irish potato famine, and the corn blight of the early '80s. We haven't yet experienced that in our livestock species, but it doesn't take much imagination to imagine that this could certainly happen in a species such as the turkey that is raised so intensively.

CURWOOD: What's your organization trying to do about this?

BIXBY: The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy monitors all of the breeds in North America and produces each year a conservation priority list of the breeds most in need of conservation. We maintain a gene bank for many of the most endangered breeds. We work with breed associations and stewards, farmers, who are keeping these breeds alive. And we try to determine the best habitat for these breeds to be re-utilized, so that there is an economic incentive for keeping them.

CURWOOD: Mr. Bixby --


CURWOOD: Do you eat turkey?

BIXBY: I do.

CURWOOD: So, what did you have for your Thanksgiving?

BIXBY: Well, I had a free-range turkey that was given to me by a farmer friend who raised them outside, on range, all summer long. They are quite different than the birds in the store. They don't have this great, huge, white breast. But there are some other characteristics that make it much more desirable. The flavor is much more intense than we've become used to in our commercial birds. It's the same size when you take it out of the oven as when you put it in, because it's not plumped up with water and oils and some of the things that are used to increase the size of commercial birds. And the texture of the meat is quite different. You don't eat as much of it because there is a mouth feel that's much more satisfying than the soft meat that we have also become used to in commercial turkeys.

CURWOOD: So you ate just enough and not too much at your Thanksgiving dinner.

BIXBY: Well, I wouldn't say that.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Don Bixby is executive director at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Thank you, sir.

BIXBY: You're quite welcome.



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