How does a vegetarian defend beef?

Here's how Nicolette Hahn Niman shoots down the arguments against eating beef.
One doesn’t usually think of eating as a political act, let alone a revolutionary one, but for many, what lands on the dinner plate not only provides nourishment, but also has become a means for saving the planet. What should and should not land on that plate and how it gets there is where the controversy, and the politics, begin.

Kalamazoo native Nicolette Hahn Niman is an environmental lawyer, rancher, food activist, and vegetarian. She stirs up something of a revolution in her controversial new book, Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher, published by Chelsea Green in October 2014.

Hahn Niman’s first book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (William Morrow, 2009), paves the path to her current work. Porkchop is an exposé of what ails BigAg, or big agriculture, the factory farms that Hahn Niman points out as major polluters across the planet, contributing to climate change, to the detriment of everyone’s health. It is also her love story, as vegetarian meets cattle rancher, Bill Niman, joining forces in marriage and business.

Defending Beef takes the next step. As Hahn Niman began her new life on the Bolinas, Calif., cattle ranch, she found herself drawn deeper and deeper into the lifestyle and the business.

"Environmentalists and health advocates have long blamed beef and cattle ranching, but it’s just not that simple," she says.

With meticulous research, Hahn Niman addresses every concern commonly associated with beef: health issues, climate change, water supply, biodiversity, overgrazing, world hunger, the morality of eating meat.

"Meat, especially red meat, has been perceived as elitist," she says. "It’s a strange way to view beef when about a billion of the world’s poorest people are dependent on livestock."

Hahn Niman served two terms on the Kalamazoo City Commission, worked as an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, and later became senior attorney for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental organization. There she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry.

"We’ve been told that beef isn’t good for us for decades," Hahn Niman says. "But in fact, beef consumption is down 22 percent over the past three decades, saturated animal fat consumption is down 21 percent over the past century, while diabetes and cardiovascular disease have gone up. The perception that we are eating more red meat and animal fat is simply not correct."

The culprits of our health problems, Niman points out, are sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup, and grain-based foods. Our consumption of sweeteners has spiked. The great majority, around 70 percent, of heart attack victims have low cholesterol levels, usually associated with eating meat. Many of these people are consuming much higher levels of sugar and processed foods.

"We’ve shifted how and what we eat," Hahn Niman says. "We are eating a lot more fast food and processed food. These are foods that are high in sugar and salt, another additive, and the body can’t metabolize these ingredients at these elevated levels. We’ve even changed how we eat—on the run, standing up, rather than at the dinner table. We need to reexamine how we eat in this country and get back to whole foods."

In Defending Beef, Hahn Niman compares the grass-based, traditional family farm to the industrialized factory farms today.

The grass-based farm should become the basis for a food revolution, Hahn Niman says. With industrialized factory farming come huge numbers of closely confined animals, and with that, crowding, disease, and lower (sometimes inhumane) standards of life. A corporation cannot care for a living animal in the same way that farmers and ranchers living alongside their animals can.

The economics of the modern food industry, Hahn Niman says, require more and more processing. And while processed meat can indeed lead to health problems, unprocessed red meat, especially grass-fed, can contribute to good health.

"I believe strongly in good animal husbandry," says Hahn Niman. "It ensures that life is worth living for that animal, but it also creates healthier food for us. (On our ranch), we are there when the calves are born, we care for them and raise them, and we accompany them to the very end. We have total oversight of the entire process and that’s why we have such confidence in the quality of our meat."

On the Nimans’ BN Ranch, cattle are grass-fed only. They graze on approximately 1,000 acres of open pasture from the first to the last day of their lives. No chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are used on the ranch. The beef is not certified organic, primarily due to the prohibitive costs and burdensome processes required for certification. The Nimans supply their premium quality beef to high-end restaurants and specialty retailers.  

"From the health standpoint, grass-fed beef has higher levels of omega-3s and other nutrients. No weird additives or hormones."

Then there is the health of the planet. Many environmentalists and vegetarians have argued against overgrazing, which disables land that might be used to grow more crops. They further contend that keeping livestock contributes to the carbon emissions and methane gases that lead to climate change. Hahn Niman disagrees.

Carbon dioxide, she notes, makes up the majority of agriculture-related greenhouse emissions. Keeping livestock on pasture land, however, contributes little to such emissions because emissions come mostly from farm machinery and manufacture of agricultural chemicals, not animals.

Absent the practice of crowding large numbers of animals together—which requires manure lagoons and has encouraged deforestation in order to clear areas for growing soy and livestock feed crops—animals actually contribute to sustainable living. Methane emissions from manure are minimal on traditional farms, where manure is not liquefied and quantities of manure, properly balanced with the amount of land, are worked back into the soil, enriching it.

"With well-managed grazing, cattle contribute to soil quality," Hahn Niman says. "We’ve heard about overgrazing for years, but cattle actually stimulate the growth of plants with their pruning. Their hooves press seeds into the ground. Research shows that where cattle are allowed to graze, biodiversity improves and carbon sequestration (taking carbon out of the atmosphere and returning it to the soil) is enhanced. Soil feeds many forms of life, starting with microorganisms, and there are countless positive downstream effects."

Whereas growing crops destroys natural habitat and the wildlife living on it, grazing cattle is often the best use of land unsuitable for growing crops.

"For many of the poor in the world, keeping livestock is their most important food source," Niman says.

As for being a vegetarian, Niman says it is a personal choice. "If you are choosing vegetarianism because of health concerns or concern for the environment, well, then your reasons are poorly grounded."

Hahn Niman will speak at Kalamazoo College on April 27, at 7 p.m., and at Portage District Library on April 28, at 6:30 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.