“My message has been that animals play an extremely important role in the food system — including an ecologically optimal one. At the same time, humans have a deep responsibility to provide them good lives. We can and must do this.”
– Nicolette Hahn Niman
Meat is controversial. There are those who lament livestock production and meat consumption altogether. Within the universe of those who don’t object to livestock and eating meat, there is disagreement about scale, production methods, environmental impacts and sustainability.
Nicolette Hahn Niman is a vegetarian who defends beef…and advocates for the benefits of sustainable livestock production. She is a writer, attorney and livestock rancher. Nicolette has written two books about sustainable meat production: Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production and Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms.
Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Atlantic, San Francisco Chronicle, CHOW and the Earth Island Journal, among others.
Niman has worked as an attorney for environmental organizations, including Waterkeeper (where she focused on issues related to livestock and poultry production) and the National Wildlife Federation. She speaks frequently at national conferences. She lives in Northern California with her two sons, and her husband, Bill Niman, founder of the natural meat companies Niman Ranch and BN Ranch.
We’ll be joining many others to hear Nicolette speaking at this week’s #FarmTank event in Sacramento. The event is being live streamed.
Q: Your book – Defending Beef – was published about two years ago and has been met with acclaim. Did you expect this? How has it changed your life?
With both of my books my goal has been to try to shift the public conversation and the way animals are actually raised. No one book can undo decades of farming practices, but I do feel that my books have helped, if even in a small way. The most rewarding moments for me have been when someone tells me that one of my books caused them to completely change the way they eat, or the way they farm. I have even received several letters from people who started farming as a result of reading one of my books!
That was an incredible feeling.
My message has been that animals play an extremely important role in the food system — including an ecologically optimal one. At the same time, humans have a deep responsibility to provide them good lives. We can and must do this. Writing books with this message has helped deepen my own understanding and knowledge of the topic, and has strengthened my commitment to dedicating my life to this cause.
Q: How do you think the conversation about sustainable meat production is changing?
Actually, I’m heartened by how quickly the conversation around meat has been shifting. When I first began working on sustainable meat production it was in 2000, as the senior attorney at the environmental group Waterkeeper. When I would describe my work at that time very few people were even aware of the way animals in industrialized systems were being raised.
Now, everywhere you look there is a focus on doing a better job of producing meat, dairy, eggs and fish – which is a very good thing.
California’s Proposition 2, which my husband and I both actively supported, was a good example of this. Much of my focus now is making the case that raising animals on grass is better for the health of the animals and the food they produce, as well as the environment. “Animal impact” is actually essential to well functioning ecosystems.
Editor’s Note: It’s a time of radical change for California poultry, with a large number of commercial farmers moving quickly to pastured, cage free systems and a rapidly growing group of backyard chicken owners looking for advice.
For an update on the California poultry scene – including the impacts of Proposition 2 – read our interview with Dr. Maurice Pitesky. He is an UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) Cooperative Extension poultry specialist and faculty member at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and is co-leader of the university’s new Pastured Poultry Farm, which opened in September 2015. This work is part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative, which seeks to address one of the world’s most compelling issues: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population. #GlobalFood
Q: Why and how does sustainable livestock management provide ecological benefits?
Almost a century ago, the British scientist Sir Albert Howard opined that the optimal way to farm was reflecting the systems created by nature. He noted that in nature animals and plants always exist together: the best agriculture is the one that mimics nature. This means that in grassland areas, domesticated grazing animals actually enhance ecosystem functions. In areas with enough soil and moisture for crop production, mixed farming systems with both plants and animals are ideal.
Nature loves complexity. Much of the benefit of animals comes from the positive effect they have on the microbiology of the soil, which is the engine that drives everything.
Editor’s Note: Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) was a British scientist/botanist who is regarded by many as a seminal figure in the early organic agriculture movement. Learn more by reading his book The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture (new foreword by Wendell Berry.)
Q: You have emerged as one of the leading advocates for sustainable and ethical meat production, yet you are a vegetarian. Do you get push back about that?
I do get asked about that quite a bit! Well, first off, I don’t argue that people MUST eat meat, only that for people who choose to, it’s a morally and ecologically defensible choice. I also believe there is very strong evidence that some animal products (which can be eggs and dairy) are important to good health over the long term. My own vegetarianism really sprang from my belief in college that this was ethically mandated for a concerned environmentalist, which is something I no longer believe.
However, I think if everyone paid more care to where their food came from and how it was produced it would dramatically shift the food system in the right direction. Eating less meat is not enough, it’s even more important to eat BETTER meat.
Q: I’m not sure how you’d feel about this question…we’re Facebook friends and I followed every post about a cow you loved – Girlfriend. She seems to have been a touchstone and I was incredibly sad when you shared she had died…I’m not sure you’d want to share, but if you do, we’d welcome having you tell our readers a bit about Girlfriend and how she informed your work.
Every good farm I have visited has a few special animals that – for one reason or another – have unique status. We’ve had a couple here. When I arrived here I immediately found myself drawn to one of our older cows (she was already 8 when I first met her.) She was a gentle animal with an incredibly calm, loving character, yet she was fiercely protective of her calves, too. It may sound a bit strange, but along with my own mother, I have gotten a lot of inspiration from Girlfriend in my own mothering!
Girlfriend died last year, at age 19, but she helped us to remember every day that every animal we raise is an individual – worthy of our patience, care and respect.