The vegetarian at Niman Ranch and 'the carnivore's dilemma'

The Gunther Report

The vegetarian at Niman Ranch and 'the carnivore's dilemma'

Pink slime is making headlines, obesity has become epidemic and mass-produced meat is blamed for contributing to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

What's a lover of burgers to do?

"People should eat less meat, but better meat," says Nicolette Hahn Niman, a woman of many talents whose email signature reads: Rancher Lawyer Author Mother.

That makes a lot of sense to me.

I met Nicolette Hahn Niman last week in Houston at an "Energy Summit" put together by Shell to talk about the interdependence of energy, food and water. Business people, academics, entrepreneurs and environmentalists talked about what needs to be done make the world more sustainable by 2050. [Disclosure: I was paid by Shell to moderate.]

Nicolette had quite a story to share. It begins in 2000 when she was an environmental lawyer and a vegetarian living in Manhattan and working for Robert Kennedy Jr., the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. He asked her to investigate pollution problems caused by the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where most cows, pigs and chickens are raised. Then, as now, most of the water pollution in the U.S. is caused by agriculture. But she resisted at first. "It didn't sound very appealing, to spend all my time working on manure," she recalls.

Bill & Nicolette Niman

But as she dug into the problem (not literally), Hahn was revolted by what she found on so-called factory farms. Crowding animals together, feeding them antiobiotics so they don't get sick, storing their waste in giant lagoons, cutting down forests to grow crops to feed them, creating stenches that bother neighbors, making workers sick -- none of it make sense to her. Industrial farms, she thought, bore no resemblance to the farms near where she grew up in western Michigan.

But what was the alternative? She went looking and found a better way -- as well as, unexpectedly, romance.

Today, Nicolette and her hippie-turned-rancher husband, Bill Niman, raise cattle and heritage turkeys at BN Ranch in Bolinas, CA. (Bill Niman is no longer associated with Niman Ranch, a well known network of ranches that sold humanely raised cattle and beef to customers ranging from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse to Chipotle.) They were married in 2003, and they have a three-year-old son.

Nicolette is the author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, a book about her crusade against factory farms and life with Niman. (You can read the opening chapter here.) And, yes, she remains a vegetarian, although she hastens to tell me that she has no "philosophical opposition" to meat, which is probably good for marital harmony.

"By the time I married Bill, I'd been a vegetarian for almost 20 years," she says, and so she's lost her desire for meat.

Still, Nicolette has a nuanced (albeit self-serving) way of thinking about meat. For health and environmental reasons, she says, Americans eat too much meat. She can't abide the sloganeering -- Beef: It's What's For Dinner -- that comes from industry trade groups. And yet she is equally put off by those who equate eating meet with driving a Hummer. (See her op-ed, The Carnivore's Dilemma, which ran in 2009 in The New York Times.)

"There's been this idea that if you're concerned about climate change, if you're concerned about the environment, you should take meat out of your diet," she says. "That's an oversimplification. There are bad ways to raise beef, and good ways to raise beef."

BN Ranch, she explained to me, lets its cattle feed on grass and uses almost no mechanized machinery. Their manure, instead of being waste, fertilizes the soil. "Animals," she has written, "can increase soil fertility, contribute to pest and weed control, and convert vegetation that's inedible to humans, and growing on marginal, uncultivated land, into food.

The trouble with this approach is that it costs more than industrialized cattle-raising. Factory farms, like most other factories, are created because they are more efficient than artisanal production.

Quoting Michael Pollan, Nicolette says we all may need to pay more for better food. "You can either pay your grocer now or you can pay your doctor later," she says. If more expensive meat means less meat, that may be good for us over time. "The health problems linked to beef are about overconsumption, not consumption per se," she points out.

For those of us who can afford as much meat as we want, paying more for better beef and eating less of it makes sense. But can the grass-fed, earth-friendly approach to raising cattle scale up to satisfy the rising global demand for meat? That seems unlikely. (For an entirely different look at the issue, see my 2011 blog post: How to "green" a hamburger.) Meantime, the best way to curb demand for meat is to insure that its price reflects its full cost–by pricing in externalities like greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, and eliminating the government grain subsidies that make a 99 cent hamburger possible. Meatless Mondays won't hurt, either.

Niman photo, by Mitch Tobias, courtesy of the author.