03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nicolette Hahn Niman: A Vegetarian Ranchers Explains How to Raise Animals the Right Way

It's not easy to debate the nuances of eating meat with vegans or dedicated carnivores, who tend to see the issue in black or white terms -- either you do or you don't eat it. Most of us lie somewhere in between, and for those of us who are trying to change our habits, there's the approach of eating less that could come from animals raised more humanely and in more environmentally responsible ways than we've come to expect from industrial agriculture.

That's where Nicolette Hahn Niman comes in. In her new book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, she describes the work she did as an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., which has led the fight in taking on factory farms or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) for their horrendous environmental impacts, particularly on waterways.

In the book Niman describes, not just what she uncovered about the environmental abuses from CAFOs, but also the miserable labor practices in the facilities, the torturous conditions that confined animals endure, and the health risks posed to those who eat the meat, live nearby or work in the places where the animals are raised.

But Niman's book is not just a Jeremy Rifkin-style expose on the meat industry; it also offers another scenario to consider. After years of working on these issues as an East Coast vegetarian lawyer she ends up moving to California and marrying Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch Inc., which paved a new path for "natural meat" production that veered sharply from the factory farm model. Her book discusses the problems with factory farms and the solutions being offered by farmers and ranchers who have returned to more traditional ways of raising animals for meat and dairy. Part personal narrative and part investigative journalism, Righteous Porkchop is a much-needed addition to the conversation about what should be on our plates these days. We recently spoke by phone and she told AlterNet why she and Bill decided to part ways with Niman Ranch, how to find meat and dairy products that haven't come from factory farms, why "local" may not be the most important designation when it comes to meat, and why wild fish populations are at risk because of CAFOs.

Tara Lohan: Since you and Bill separated from Niman Ranch Inc., what do you think of the way the company is being run now -- are you still supporters of their work?

Nicolette Hahn Niman: Bill really truly is a passionate perfectionist. He was unhappy with some changes that new management made to the beef protocols. The lamb and the pork are the same as they ever were. I can say unequivocally that we are very supportive of what is happening with the pork and the lamb. The beef is probably very similar now to what is happening with other natural beef companies, it is certainly no worse. What Bill was insisting on the whole time he was there were protocols that were stricter than those of other natural beef companies. Bill had established incredibly high standards, and those were changed. We are no longer endorsers of the beef but I don't believe it is worse than other natural beef companies. Also, we are very supportive of the model of having a collective of traditional farmers and ranchers working together. I really think that Niman Ranch is a great example of getting food from traditional farms to ordinary consumers. To get what we are advocating for to become mainstream, you have to have groups of farmers coming together. Niman Ranch is a good model for that.

TL: You mention in the book that the designation of 'local' food when it comes to meat isn't always the best indicator of what we should be striving for. Why not?

NHN: I always sort of de-emphasize local in the context of meat because I've seen the most bizarre abuses of that phrase. I give one example in the book of someone I knew in Minnesota who had a local co-op that was buying local pork. And she asked the co-op manager where the pork was from and when she found out, she knew the operation. She said "That's a confinement operation, they have a liquefied manure system, the animals are fed antibiotics, they are confined continually." The co-op manager said, "Well, it's a local source, and that's what we are focusing on." She was shocked. She knew that's not what people who are shopping at a co-op are expecting to get when they see a sign that says "local pork." They are thinking of a small, family farm using traditional farming methods. I always like to emphasize that the word "local," especially when dealing with meat, isn't the most important virtue.

TL: Meat that is not produced by industrial agriculture can be pricey. How do we make sure that good meat is more accessible to people?

NHN: The most important thing an individual can do is examine his or her own eating habits. One step at a time. Baby steps are OK. In fact, I think they are imperative. The more you change, the more you want to change and you become more willing over time to pay more for your food. It does currently cost quite a bit more.

Eventually, the consumer demand will create the supply, which will lower costs. I have no doubt that this can happen. There is a whole new generation of younger people interested in traditional farming. There is a whole community of people who have come here from other parts of the world who are familiar with traditional farming and would like to farm here. Consumer demand will create an opportunity for people. There will be more supply of traditionally raised foods and, over time, the costs will come down. For example, Niman Ranch discovered that if you have enough pigs to fill a truck versus half a truck it makes an incredible difference in the cost of every pound of pork. There's another problem, and it's not the fault of farmers. When you are talking about animal-based foods, the processing step is a critical part of the cost for consumers. I'll give you an example. I was talking with an organic pasture-based farmer in Kentucky and he was telling me that for every organic chicken he sells he pays $3 for the processing. Three dollars! That's a huge amount to process a single chicken, because the consumer has to pay that on top of the value of raising the animal. It's almost impossible for a farmer to make any money off of that and provide an affordable product.

Here's another example. An agricultural economist I spoke with recently said that in Kentucky it costs between $300 to $400 to slaughter and process a steer if you're a smaller farmer and only have access to a smaller slaughterhouse. In contrast, if you're a big company and have access to a bigger slaughterhouse, it's about $150. Obviously, that is an enormous difference. I hear about these slaughter and processing problems over and over. That's a bottleneck and there are ways that could be addressed by local and state governments but it hasn't been. I know a number of individuals and non-profits trying to improve the situation. I think when we see better slaughterhouses and processing facilities available to smaller farmers we'll see a dramatic reduction in cost.

TL: A lot of people who don't eat meat think they don't contribute to the horrendous practices in feedlots, but eating dairy is just as bad or worse, you write. Why?

Click here to read my whole interview with Nicolette and find out more about the little known connection between wild fish and CAFOs, whether grass fed beef is all it's made out to be, and what's next for the Nimans.