A vegetarian’s defense of beef

11/20/2014

Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production. By Nicolette Hahn Niman. 288 pages. Chelsea Green. $19.95.

 

Beef is the most maligned of meats. It’s so regularly demonized as an environmental harm and a health hazard that its negatives are assumed to be common knowledge. 

Red meat reminds us of the stench of manure rising from Central Valley feedlots, the overuse of antibiotics and growth hormone in feed and cattle prods pushing muddy cows to slaughter.

Three decades ago, those associations prompted Nicolette Hahn Niman, then an undergraduate, to swear off beef and later all meat. In her new book, “Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production,” she reevaluates her assumptions, incorporating her diverse experiences of studying biology in college, suing industrial pig farms for pollution as an environmental lawyer and, most recently, raising livestock alongside her husband, Bill Niman, at BN Ranch in Bolinas. 

She concludes that cattle and beef are not inherently bad; our improper management is to blame. Her solution is to dismantle the factory farm and return to the age-old practices through which grasses and animals, and humans and livestock, symbiotically evolved.

“This book is at once a defense of cattle and beef, and an indictment of many aspects of the modern diet and modern agriculture,” Ms. Hahn Niman writes in the book’s introduction. “The United States is the world’s top beef producer. We can, and should, lead the world in forging a more environmentally sound way of raising cattle.”

Dense with the latest research, the boo bk makes a compelling argument for beef’s place in our food system. By grazing cattle on native grasslands, it argues we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase soil productivity and water retention, support biodiversity and preserve rangelands, all while harvesting nutritious food from otherwise unfarmable land. 

The argument may seem strange from a lifelong vegetarian who still doesn’t eat meat. But Ms. Hahn Niman says she wrote the book to move beyond black-and-white and the “polarizing, oversimplified rhetoric pitting an implacable, defensive agribusiness in one corner against equally intractable vegan activists for abolition of all animal farming on the other.” Her case is nuanced and thoughtful, and one worth reading. 

The book’s first half addresses a misconception that cattle are “the nation’s worst industrial polluters,” a claim that’s been advanced since the first Earth Day in 1970 and repeated by books like “Animal Factories” (1980), “Diet for a New America” (1987) and “Beyond Beef” (1992). Conservationists paint a picture of “munching mouths and trampling hooves” to show cattle’s devastation, referencing the overgrazing in the early 20th century that resulted in the Dust Bowl. Perhaps most damning was a widely cited 2006 report by the United Nations that claimed meat resulted in 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

Ms. Hahn Niman contends this line of reasoning is misleading. While greenhouse gas emissions certainly result from chopping down forests for pasture, operating highly automated factory farms, storing manure in massive liquefied lagoons and feeding livestock grain fertilized with nitrogen, none of these practices are required. “Our own ranch is living proof,” she writes. 

Indeed, putting cattle on pastureland has been shown to restore natural landscapes. (Ms. Hahn Niman rightfully avoids any studies funded by the beef industry for her proofs.) As the Marin Carbon Project and others are documenting, soil may be the planet’s best place to store greenhouse gases, and livestock grazing plays a key part in the sequestration. Just like mowing a lawn stimulates fresh growth, placing ruminants onto pasture clears dead or dried grasses, opening space for light to stimulate fresh growth. 

Following the teachings of wildlife ecologist Allan Savory, Ms. Hahn Niman explains the argument: “Savory advocates that animals be kept in dense herds and moved often; that grazing stimulates biological activity in the soil; that animal waste adds fertility; that hooves break the soil surface, press in seeds, and push down dead plant matter so it can be acted upon by soil microorganisms,” she writes. “The basis for Savory’s approach is to re-create, to the extent possible, the conditions under which grasslands evolved.”

This method has the benefit of making otherwise untillable land productive. The foggy hills of Point Reyes yield limited crops, but cows, with their unique multi-chambered stomachs, are able to directly harness the sun’s energy into food for our consumption by digesting grass that’s otherwise inedible to humans and most other animals. And it can all be done without the help of fertilizer (besides the cow’s own patties). 

Crops like corn and soy, on the other hand, can be the most damaging to these landscapes, causing soil erosion that could be prevented through careful grazing practices.

The book’s second half tackles America’s eating disorder. Ms. Hahn Niman believes we’ve misdiagnosed the cause of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and stroke, pointing to a poorly conducted 1953 study that set public health on its current condemnation of red meat. Cutting-edge research has found little correlation between red meat and saturated animal fats (like butter) and heart disease. In fact, Americans are now eating less red meat—a 17 percent decline from 1970 to 2005—but our waistlines continue to expand.

Instead, Ms. Hahn Niman points to other culprits: processed trans fat, sugar and grains. The average American’s consumption of sweeteners has risen drastically—to as much as 130 pounds of sugar a year—paralleling our increased risk of chronic diseases. “Sugar and flour. We’ve made them cheap and abundant and now we consume them in great excess,” she argues. “Our collective health is paying the price.”

Her research complicates the vegetarian’s logic. Dairy and eggs, she points out, are often harvested under more inhumane conditions—hens raised in wire cages their entire lives, dairy cows shot up with hormones to the point of lameness—than the beef cattle that spend the majority of their lives on grass or in pens. Moreover, crops like soy, grains, fruits and vegetables “are all highly altering of habitat and have immediate and ripple effects on literally billions and billions of creatures of all types,” she writes.

All our decisions—what we purchase, eat and throw away—have ramifications. “Each component—every ray of sunshine, every drop of water, every clump of soil, every plant, every insect, every grazing animal—has many varied roles and effects,” Ms. Hahn Niman says. 

Yet that impact also gives the consumer “enormous power to make positive changes in the food system,” she writes. Refusing to buy meat may not have much of an impact on Tyson or Cargill’s bottom line, but patronizing local farmers who raise cattle ethically and sustainably can add much-needed financial support to their enterprises and encourage others to join them. 

And with legislators under the influence of agribusiness dollars, the need for consumers to take direct action becomes all the more important. “Tomorrow’s farming cannot look like the agriculture of today,” Ms. Hahn Niman urges.

Her proposed solution, food “produced as nature functions,” is a fine rule to follow. She ends the book with a reference to an idea espoused by Michael Pollan and others: that animals became domesticated as a metaphorical “bargain” with humanity. We promised them “food, shelter, and protection from predators … in exchange for the animals providing humans food in the form of eggs, milk, and meat,” she writes. Factory farming—with its attendant “problems of land management, wasted resources, pollution, animal welfare, and food safety”—have forced us to violate the terms of that contract. 

She shows us that a new covenant can be made between man and beast. With proper management practices, pasture can be restored, humans gain a protein and nutrient-rich food and animals can enjoy a full life frolicking and grazing in grassy fields. 

“One should choose one’s beef well and wisely,” Ms. Hahn Niman concludes. “Then dig in and enjoy.”

 

Nicolette Hahn Niman will discuss “Defending Beef” and sign copies of the book (which will be available for purchase) from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 22 at St. Aidan’s Church, in Bolinas. She will join host Robin Carpenter on KWMR’s Food & Farmshed Report at noon on Monday, Nov. 24.