Defending Beef

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Editor’s Note: We have long admired the work of Nicolette Hahn Niman. As Senior Attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry. Her first book, Righteous Porkchop, earned critical acclaim. Her latest book is Defending Beef and she discusses it here with us.

HandPicked Nation: Congratulations on your new book. It is quite a read, filled with big ideas that you have explained very well.

Nicolette Hahn Niman: Thank you!

HPN: First of all, talk a little bit about why you wrote this book and what you would like your readers to come away with after reading it?

NHN: Regardless of the reader’s perspective at the outset, I hope everyone will view cattle and beef somewhat different by the end of the book. It’s a very polarizing topic and I find very little nuance in much of the public discussion. But the truth is rarely black and white, and it definitely is not when it comes to beef.

HPN: Your book is entitled, Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production. Why does beef need defending?

NHN: Some time around 1970 it became part of the zeitgeist to regard beef as environmentally and socially problematic. Since that idea has now been around for decades, it’s become quite entrenched. It’s practically considered blasphemy in the environmental community to suggest otherwise!

HPN: How did you become a rancher yourself? What’s that been like?

NHN: You might say it was through marriage, but it was actually more complicated. I married my husband, Bill Niman, who is the founder of the company Niman Ranch, and raises cattle for a living, just after finishing a two-year stint as an environmental lawyer specializing in livestock pollution. I’d been a vegetarian for over two decades, as well, so it never even occurred to me I would want to work on the ranch. But once I moved to our ranch, I found myself incredibly intrigued by what was happening here – I was proud of the way the land was taken care of and the good lives our animals experienced here. I wanted to become part of it.

HPN: What would you say to a person asking you to make your case for beef?

NHN: Well, obviously, it’s not possible to fully re-cap here, but my summary would be: the environmentally optimal food system involves cattle, and the most healthful human diet involves beef.

HPN: In your book you make a really good point–that grass-based ranching is good, not just for the cattle, but for people, and even the nation. Talk about what you were communicating there.

NHN: The book contains a chapter about the people on farms and ranches. The number of people directly involved in agriculture has been dramatically falling for several decades. I believe this is a problem for our country because farming and ranching – especially where livestock are involved – creates a unique human character – one that is highly resilient, closely in touch with the cycles of life, and very grounded in nature. Our nation cannot afford to lose that pool of citizens.

HPN: Not all cattle operations are created equal! There is such a huge difference between CAFO and grass-fed, pastured operations. Do we need to define our terms here? Maybe not all beef can be defended. Talk about that, if you would.

NHN: Well, yes, I agree that there’s a wide variation among operations and that some are better from various perspectives than others. But it’s important to note that I do not argue that all beef must be strictly grassfed to be defensible. For one thing, a large portion of all cattle in the U.S. (the mother cows, bulls, and calves) and the world live their lives on grass. Thus, all the environmental and other benefit accrue. Second, there is a time and a place for grain. It’s not all bad, as is sometimes suggested.

HPN: It seems as if there are meat recalls all too often. Most people don’t differentiate between CAFO and grass-fed beef, so all beef stands accused. What would you say about this situation?

NHN: There’s a shortage of high quality, accessible slaughter facilities in the United States right now. And USDA does a very poor job of differentiating between different situations. The agency has a very limited toolbox. It’s incredibly important that we – as a nation – ensure good, safe, accessible slaughter and processing facilities. Local farms and ranches must have a way to bring their meat to market.

HPN: For so long, cattle production has been accused of being at the core of all our environmental and health woes. First, is it true and secondly, why has this been accepted as fact for so long?

NHN: Clearly, I don’t accept those ideas. In fact, I began the research for this book with the premise that cattle ranching, done the right way, could be environmentally benign. But the more I learned about grassland ecosystems, the more I have become convinced that we must have these large grazing herds. The ecosystems simply cannot function properly without them. So, I went from feeling ranching could be benign to considering it absolutely essential. The health side is similar. I never fully understand how nutritious and valuable beef is as food until I really looked into the matter. It’s incredibly good food!

HPN: You say something I think is really important. You say, “quitting beef would have far less impact than shifting from commercial beef to well-raised beef. So, the point is to turn our collective back on feed-lot beef? Talk about that.

NHN: Especially in this global marketplace, an individual’s decision to cut back or stop eating beef will have little effect on the shape of the beef industry. The world is full of people who want to buy American beef. On the other hand, every farm or ranch that is working hard to do everything the right way – eschewing all hormones and antibiotic feeding, for example — is one that is at something of a financial disadvantage, because those decisions make the process of raising the animals to maturity more expensive. So those kinds of farms and ranches really need support from consumers, and a small number of individuals – chefs or individual households – who commit to them can literally make the difference between survival or failure. So to me it’s clear that simply abandoning beef is not the best way to positively influence the food system.

HPN: It’s impossible to discuss raising beef cattle without touching on the subject of the increasing scarcity of local slaughterhouses. Is that a problem for you in Bolinas, California? Can you speak to this subject?

NHN: As I mentioned previously, this is a real problem. The smaller scale facilities have nearly all been bought up and shut down or consolidated by large agribusiness companies. I think Congress should mandate access to those facilities for independent farmers and ranchers. It’s the only way to ensure the continued survival of the independent livestock rancher.

HPN: It’s been said that the ‘primary form of food is grass’. In this limited forum, can you explain the importance and the inextricable relationship between, soil, water, grass, and properly raised cattle?

NHN: Grass covers nearly half of the earth, and so much comes along with it. It is the world’s biggest solar collector. The majority of the life of grass plants is below ground in the form of long densely matted roots, and these are the key to healthy soils. Everything starts from the soil. All healthy plants and animals have their genesis there. So we need to ensure that we are doing what needs to be done to keep the world’s grasslands healthy and highly functioning. I truly don’t think we’ll survive if we don’t protect begin to value our grasses and soils.

HPN: You quote vegetable farmer, Eliot Coleman: “Targeting livestock as a smoke screen in the climate change controversy is a very mistaken path to take since it results in hiding our inability to deal with the real causes (burning od fossil fuels).” He said a mouthful in that sentence! Give us your thoughts on what he said.

NHN: Few people understand the absolutely essential role of animals, especially grazing animals in the food system. Because he is a farmer, and a very good one, Eliot Coleman does. He’s famous for his vegetable farming, yet he understands the essential nature of ruminants in converting grasses – either as part of a diverse rotation, or as part of permanent pasture – into part of the food system in the form of milk and meat. In nature, plants and animals always work together. No truly ecological food system can banish animals either.

HPN: Any last thoughts? What have I not been clever enough to ask?

NHN: People very often ask me why a vegetarian is defending the livestock industry, and now beef. Obviously, I am directly involved in it these days, so I have a stake in its survival. But what motivates me to write and speak about this is the urgent sense I feel to try to bring some nuance into a vastly oversimplified conversation. Cattle can have many harmful effects when poorly managed. But when well managed, their contribution is extraordinary. This is a complex and fascinating issue, not one that easily translates into a bumper sticker.

HPN: Thank you, Nicolette, for your time today. Congratulations on your terrific book.

NHN: Thank you for your interest in this topic, Craig. I’m thrilled to be in HandPicked Nation again!

Photo credit: Craig McCord