This Thanksgiving, Bring a Sustainable Side to Dish About

Submitted by egreene on

Though nobody likes having tough conversations around the Thanksgiving table, we at Green America think that having family and friends over is a great time to talk about sustainable Thanksgiving food. These dishes can spark conversations about your values for ethical and sustainable food.

One fun way to get people talking is to bring sides worth dishing about. These delicious dishes will fit right in with your Thanksgiving dinner and can also start a conversation around on important sustainable issues--fair trade, the climate crisis, organic foods, and more. 

Swapping Out Classics for Vegan Versions

Vegan Mashed Potatoes and Vegan Mac & Cheese: Potatoes and mac & cheese are bona fide Thanksgiving classics—satisfy everyone with this delicious and savory mashed potato recipe and this creamy mac & cheese

The Issues with these Classic Dishes:  

  • Carbon emissions aren’t just from cars and factories. The cows that produce the milk, butter, and cheese used in standard mashed potato and mac and cheese recipes also contribute to the climate crisis. While meat gets more attention for its carbon emissions, much of the emissions coming from that industry aren’t from the slaughterhouse but from the production of the grain feed. This feed also has a secondary effect, as it forces methane out of the animals’ digestive systems. Notably, methane has an even greater warming effect than CO2. 

  • Industrial agriculture can be cruel and harm the environment; these recipes cut the animal agriculture industry out of the picture. In addition to the emissions from the feed, the feeding operations at industrial dairy farms are cramped and unethical, as cows are forced to eat on concrete floors, surrounded side-to-side by other cattle.  

How to Talk about Going Vegan:

  • Carbon emission from vegan ingredients are considerably lower than other foods, although some ingredients may still be GMO. 
  • You can get the same creamy texture to your mashed potatoes without sacrificing your commitment to environmental sustainability. There’s no downside to making the switch to vegan dishes, they can improve your health and protect the earth 

Fair Trade Cranberry Sauce

No Thanksgiving meal would truly be complete without a sweet cranberry sauce—but non-fair-trade sugar could contribute to harming workers, and without using organic sugar, you’re almost certain to be using genetically engineered sugar from GMO sugar beets. By using fair trade sugar and leaving out corn syrup, your cranberry sauce will spark conversation about labor rights and GMOs. 

The Issues with Cranberry Sauce:  

  • Without fair trade certification, your sugar could be produced on farms and plantation without any labor protections, whether against forced labor or child labor. Further, some fair trade organizations implement environmental policies to ensure farms are protecting our water and soil. Both the Fair Trade Certified™ label and Fairtrade America prohibit the use of certain herbicides and encourage farmers to grow organic crops. 
  • Corn syrup is higher in fructose than normal table sugar and is almost certain to use GMO crops, as is regular table sugar in the US. 
  • GMO crops allow for massive pesticide use, as they are engineered to be resistant to certain herbicides and pesticides. Although Monsanto claimed GMOs would reduce overall use of herbicides, studies have found that herbicide use has only ballooned with the introduction of GMOs. Some notable herbicides include dicamba, a chemical known to harm worker health, as well as known carcinogens 2,4-D and glyphosate. 
  • GMOs also promote monocropping, the growth of only one type for crop variety in the same plot of land for a long period, which depletes nutrients in the soil and reduces the soil’s fertility. This forces farmers to use supplements, like nitrogen and phosphorous, that pollute waterways and cause dead zones in the oceans, killing marine life. 

How to Talk about GMOs and Fair Trade: 

  • Your cranberry sauce will taste the same – the only difference is that you can assure your conscience that your sugar isn’t being produced by exploited labor and child workers

  • Corn syrup can be easily replaced in most recipes, and not using it reduces the market for GMO goods and industrially produced corn, which can hurt soil vitality. It’s also very important to replace corn syrup with organic, fair-trade sugar to avoid replacing GMO corn with GMO sugar and to ensure you’re not supporting unethical labor practices. 

  • It’s nearly impossible to guarantee that your corn syrup is GMO-free because 92 percent of corn crops in the US are GMOs. If your family isn’t concerned about potential health effects directly from GMOs, remind them that GMO crops are often created to allow greater herbicide and pesticide use, which impacts workers, soil health, pollinators, and our water. 

    • Monsanto’s RoundUp, the most commonly used herbicide in the US, is a known carcinogen and the company is facing tens of thousands of lawsuits for cancer cases related to the chemical. 

    • Runoff from conventional agriculture, both from overuse of water and the pesticides, contaminates the water supply and kills aquatic animals, leaving a less diverse ecosystem. 

    • The pesticides don’t leave once the crops are harvested—residue from dozens of chemicals remain on produce in the grocery store. 


After dinner’s wrapped up, bring out this chocolate mousse or any other dessert using fair trade chocolate to end your meal with some delicious sweets while drawing attention to the use of child labor in the chocolate industry.  

The Issues with Conventional Cocoa:

  • We’ve just discussed why fair trade is important, but chocolate producers have a greater need for certification than many other food industries 
  • Child labor and forced labor are widespread on cocoa plantations, and these groups are responsible for massive deforestation as well 
    • Companies may not always be transparent about their environmental policies, but Green America determined what efforts major chocolate companies are undertaking to end deforestation. 

How to Talk about Ethical and Sustainable Chocolate: 

  • Chocolate supply chains can be more complex than simply looking at fair trade certification. Companies need to have innovative solutions to instances of child labor and react to a changing supply chain. 
  • Along with the more complex problems in the chocolate supply chain, Green America has a scorecard ranking various chocolate companies on child labor, fair trade certification, farmer compensation, and deforestation. 
  • Your family can use this scorecard to figure out which chocolate companies are exploiting child and forced labor and destroying forests and which are ethically sourcing your sweets. Avoid buying from Mondelez, Ferrero, and Godiva, which all received a grade of D or worse. In particular, Godiva has no labor certification process in place and received an F-grade from Green America. 

Not Cooking? Try an Organic Wine Pairing 

You don’t need to make an elaborate dish to get people interested in green living—your choice of wine could. Pick out an organic wine from any of these certified organic wine sellers for a high-quality dinner pairing and an excellent conversation starter. 

The Issues with Wine:  

  • Organic is more than just a label—let your family know why they should select organic options when possible 
  • Conventional wine production involves the use of toxic pesticides. In California alone, 25 million pounds of pesticides were applied to wine grapes. 
  • Conventional farming can also be harmful to workers on small farms, as mass produced crops can be easily produced by agribusiness. Meanwhile, organic farming can be done at a smaller scale, leaving room for small farmers. 

How to Talk about Conventional vs. Organic:  

  • Organic food isn’t only better because of the lessened effect on the soil as a result of not using toxic pesticides- it even has an impact on climate change. Investigations have found that transitioning all US crops to organic would have the equivalent impact of reducing our emissions of 1.6 billion tons of CO2 per year
  • As you’re talking about your drink over the dinner table, you can talk about how it helps make your water safer as well. Runoff from conventional agriculture infects our water sources. 
  • Organic wine sellers exist all around the country and usually hope to serve their local community. By buying from these local companies, you have the added effect of reducing the environmental cost of transporting your wine. 

You can start up a conversation about green living with your friends and family this Thanksgiving by preparing one—or even all!—of these dishes. Your delicious sustainable dishes will help you raise awareness about crucial issues like the climate crisis, fair trade, and the downsides of GMO crops. These dishes can also be made year-round, so you can enjoy organic and fair-trade meals as often as you’d like. Have a Happy and sustainable Thanksgiving! 

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