Defending Beef: Changing the Conversation About Meat with Nicolette Hahn Niman

by Crystal Sands

A few months ago, I was doing a grocery pickup when the young person loading groceries into my trunk lectured me a bit about how the organic milk I was purchasing was bad for the environment and not necessary for human health. I didn’t say much, but as he continued and told me how I should be drinking almond milk or oat milk instead, I finally said, “There’s some pretty good science indicating there are health benefits to animal milk, and I have a son who has grown 10 inches in the last year; he craves milk every day.” And then I added, “And speaking of bad for the environment, we could talk about what almond milk is doing to our bees.”

He didn’t seem phased but could at least see he wasn’t going to persuade me. “I just wanted to make sure you were aware there are alternatives,” he said.

Alternatives to food from animals has been a debate among humans for a long time. In her book, Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman points out, “Going back to ancient times, there have been pro and con vegetarian debates. The debate continues to rage.” And it is in this new book that Hahn Niman delves into some of the key issues in the modern debate over eating products from animals, in this case, specifically beef. She argues that beef is nutritionally beneficial to humans and does not have to be bad for the environment. In fact, when cattle are raised sustainably, they are actually good for the environment–helping to build soils, prevent desertification, and fight climate change.

The negative impacts of big agribusiness on climate changes has been a hot topic in the media in recent years, and this is not without good reason. However, the general public, who may not be aware of the variety of farming methods used in raising beef, often misunderstands that cattle farming doesn’t have to be bad for everyone involved. Hahn Niman is famous for saying, “It’s not the cow; it’s the how,” and this is really a critical point Hahn Niman makes in her book. While large scale factory farming of animals is bad for the environment, sustainable farming of cattle is actually quite good for the environment.

This month, I had the chance to speak with Hahn Niman about her book, and one of the first things we talked about was the misconceptions surrounding beef and farming. I asked her what were the biggest misconceptions she hopes to dispel with her book.

She says she thinks we are having the “completely wrong conversation” when it comes to beef and mitigating climate change. “I don’t agree with a lot of the way meat is produced in the world today, and that’s really what my first book, Righteous Porkchop, is all about, which is kind of a manifesto against the big, industrialized methods of farming–having animals continually indoors, giving them pharmaceuticals in their feed and water to stimulate growth and stave off disease…This book is about the incredibly valuable role animals, specifically grazing animals, play in our food systems and in the environment.”

She says there’s a baseline assumption that animals are inherently environmentally destructive, but this is simply not true. All human activity has an impact on the environment, but ecologically vibrant farms include animals. And, she argues, “We need to harvest the positive power of these grazing animals.”

In Defending Beef, Hahn Niman addresses another myth we often see in the media that animal products are bad for you. Citing decades of research and tracing the history of our food systems in the United States, Hahn Niman explores the way meat and other animal food products have gotten a bad rap in the media. She points to the health benefits of eating meat. “Meat is incredibly nutrient rich,” and as a former vegetarian herself, she notes that, often, when people cut meat from their diets, they replace it with calories that are less nutritious.

Defending Beef is well researched, rich in history, and extremely informed. Nicolette Hahn Niman spent years writing and revising this book–a work she is clearly proud of. She brings an enormous amount of ethos to her argument from her personal experience as a vegetarian and an environment lawyer, but she still packs this book with quality sources. It dispels a lot of myths many of us may have about meat, and as a reader, I was reminded in this book of how ethnocentric my ideas about meat really are.

Near the end of her book, Hahn Niman writes, “[T]he high quality nutrition of meat and milk would be difficult to replace with foods from plants, especially for people in the developing world and children everywhere.”

My husband and I eat less meat since we began farming. At first, the health and environmental benefits of not eating meat were among our motivations, but even before reading Hahn Niman’s book, I began to learn I had been ill-informed on these issues. I have since learned much about the benefits of grazing animals on soil. Although I can’t speak for my husband, I now have a hard time eating meat because of the connections I have to animals. But I would consider this more of a spiritual belief for me, and I am not philosophically opposed to eating meat. In fact, I continue to eat meat, mainly beef, though far less than I used to. Still, I would never impose my will about eating meat on others, and based on nutrition research, I do not feel comfortable raising a child who has grown 10 inches in one year without meat in his diet. Of course, as a farmer, I deeply understand that not all beef is equal.

Our family purchases sustainably-raised, grass-fed, organic beef from a local farm. It’s not cheap meat, but I would argue that it shouldn’t be. Nationally and globally, we are going to have to make a shift in how we raise our meat, and all of us need to consider what kind of farming we support with our dollars. Nicolette Hahn Niman’s work really shows us the way. With meat and dairy, it truly is “the how,” and Hahn Niman is helping to change a national conversation that desperately needs to be changed.

Defending Beef by Nicollete Hahn Niman is available now through Chelsea Green Publishing.