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Can You Eat Meat and Still Say You Support the Environment? A Q&A With Rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman

06/14/2010 09:31 am 09:31:44 | Updated May 25, 2011

The signs are everywhere. People are starting to quietly wonder, and to ask, even to demand information about where the food on their plate comes from. The truth too often is as unsettling as it is eye-opening, considering the rampant rise of factory farming. The question remains, though: are there other options available to us? Other less harmful systems we can support? Or, well, are we as a nation headed for Burger Armageddon?

In my quest to speak with experts directly involved with these matters, I thought to go to the source: ranchers. By ordering that steak, or hitting the drive-thru for that bag of burgers, who and what are we actually supporting? Following on from there, what advice could help those of us who live several steps removed from the food system?

I went to my friend, Ralph Loglisci, former Communications Director for the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and now Project Director for the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project. The timing was right as he'd spoken just recently with Nicolette Hahn Niman for the Livable Future Blog and Civil Eats. She and her husband Bill run the BN Ranch in Northern California near the seaside, raising beef cattle on pasture as well as heritage turkeys. Bill founded the famous Niman Ranch Inc. known for its sustainable and humanely raised meats. Nicolette is a Renaissance woman of sorts -- new mom, writer, rancher and environmental lawyer.

Ralph Loglisci: You wrote an interesting piece in The Atlantic recently entitled "Can Meat Eaters Also Be Environmentalists?" Well, can they?

Nicolette Hahn Niman: Yes, definitely. The idea that it's a contradiction to be a meat eater and an environmentalist is a misunderstanding of the most ecologically sound food production systems - which, in my view, definitely involve animals. There's been a lot of media attention concerning the idea that meat production is environmentally damaging. That's because of bad practices that are rampant, such as total confinement systems with liquefied manure, use of hormones and feeding of antibiotics. Most of the meat being consumed in the United States today is being produced in environmentally damaging ways. The evidence is now irrefutable: these practices endanger the environment and public health.

I've been doing a lot of research into the role that animals play in rebuilding soils. And how grazing pastures are far better than any other agricultural land use in terms of erosion and in carbon sequestration. One thing I've become convinced of is that the best farming mimics nature. Natural ecosystems are all built on the relationships of sunshine, water, plants and animals. So, I would say that, actually, the most environmentally sound diet includes some meat, dairy and eggs.

RL: If that's so, are there ways to avoid industrially produced foods?

NHN: I wrote a thorough article in the Huffington Post on this topic back in November, which I'll try to summarize in a few words. The most important thing is to get closer to the source of your food. Try to learn how and where your food was produced. The easiest ways to do this are to try to buy directly from farmers through farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs [CSAs], farm stands and any place where you can get food directly from a farmer. Even so, I still encourage people to talk with the farmer about how the food is being produced, don't assume it's being raised in the way you want it to be.

I also think that growing some of your own food is a great way to get out of the industrial system. You can start a vegetable garden, even if you just have a terrace or a fire escape with a flowerpot with some tomatoes and some herbs. And if you have a yard, why not grow a garden, maybe with a flock of egg-laying hens? I think it makes a big difference to just start taking baby-steps away from the industrial food system.

Eating is something most of us tend to do without much thought. But the more you start paying attention to it, the more you realize it's something worth investing time in. Building delicious, healthy meals ends up being something that's incredibly rewarding and not a chore.

RL: What's your advice for people who'd rather not eat industrially produced foods, but are limited either by higher costs or easy access?

NN: Well, that's challenging because the whole industrial model has been successful at creating food that's cheap in terms of its cost at the grocery checkout. But our food is also cheap in the other sense of the word. It's lacking in quality -- these days it's less nutritious, less safe and less healthful than ever before.

Generally you pay more for food raised on traditional and/or organic farms. Here again, raising some of your own food to the extent possible is one way to eat good food affordably. Also, doing more of your own cooking and baking as opposed to buying prepared foods. Whole ingredients tend to be cheaper than prepared foods. Also, eating fruits and vegetables when they're in season. You really notice this when buying directly from farmers, because in the season of plenty they usually have more than they can handle and the prices are lower.

When you're talking about meat, learning how to use some of the less popular cuts (which are no less flavorful or nutritious), is a great way to save money. My husband Bill, who really knows meat, always talks about this. He says some of the tastiest, most nutritious cuts of meat are some of the most underappreciated. They're often a lot cheaper.

RL: Continuing with positive options, the Meatless Monday campaign of moderation, cutting back just one day a week, has erroneously come under attack for promoting the demise of all meat production. As a rancher yourself, what would you say to people -- to farmers even -- threatened by the campaign?

NHN: Bill and I are very supportive of the Meatless Monday campaign. Here's why: we think that to really improve the way food is being produced, and the way people are eating in this country, people should eat less meat and also better meat. All food from animals -- meat, dairy, fish, eggs -- should be treated as something special. Anyone raising food animals in the traditional healthy way without relying on industrial methods, drugs and chemicals, is someone who will benefit from people embracing this approach.

We think Meatless Monday is part of a shift in attitude about meat. Towards something that is precious, not something consumed without thought, or in enormous quantities.

RL: And finally, you've gained a great deal of praise for your book, "Righteous Porkchop, Finding A Life And Good Food Beyond Factory Farms." Michael Pollan is quoted as saying your book is, 'A searing, and utterly convincing, indictment of modern meat production. But the book brims with hope, too, and charts a practical (and even beautiful) path out of the jungle.' Instead of focusing on the indictment part, could you tell me more about the hope he mentioned?

NHN: Yes, I like focusing on the hope, too. A lot of my book is about farmers doing things the right way from the standpoint of the environment, animal welfare and human health. I firmly believe that it's a myth that this country cannot feed itself with traditional, non-industrialized farming. A lot of my book is dedicated to disproving that myth, and proving that traditional, sustainable farms are economically viable.

But I think it's really important to keep in mind that our country is heavily subsidizing with public dollars the current form of industrial agriculture. If we really want a sustainable healthful food system, we need to take the dollars we're putting into agriculture and shift it towards good methods. I support the use of public funds for agriculture - but I don't understand why we're not putting it towards a food system that is environmentally benign and producing healthy food.