Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney, author and livestock rancher who has worked for a number of environmental organizations including the Waterkeeper Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation.
Her recent book “Righteous Porkchop” is a personal memoir dealing with animal agriculture in the United States.
In part 1 of my three-part conversation (part 2 is here and part 3 is here) with Niman, she talks about growing up in the Midwest, moving to New York City, and how the treatment of pigs is different in industrial farming operations and traditional, smaller farms.
Growing Up, Moving To The City
Annie Corrigan (Earth Eats): You grew up in the Midwest and then moved to the East coast to practice law. I wonder how your eating habits and lifestyle changed from one location to the next.
Nicolette Hahn Niman: I started out in the Midwest, which is the heart of so much of the great farming in this country. I grew up in Kalamazoo, which is an urbanized community, but I spent a lot of time on the farm while I was growing up, because my parents were very interested in getting our food directly from farms.
We picked a lot of our own fruit. We had a number of friends who had farms. We would go out occasionally, work for the day on the farm. So, I learned some things about farming, and my parents really believed in the importance of eating healthful food and eating food that was as close as possible to having been harvested.
My mom used to grow a lot of her own food for our family in her garden. So, there was always an emphasis on eating good food and knowing where your food came from. But I still only had a certain amount of understanding about it until the job at Waterkeeper Alliance.
Away From Industrial Food
There, I was really seeing the inside of the modern industrial way of producing food, especially livestock and diary, and that was very different from what I’d seen as a child.
I became concerned that a lot of the food I was eating was coming from those sorts of operations, the very thing that I was working in my day job to change, this form of production that I think is totally unsustainable.
I began to really examine my own eating habits, and I found that quite challenging in New York City, to get away from the industrial type of food.
When I moved to California, and became a rancher myself, I also came to a community that is extremely interested in good food and farming. This is the community that Prince Charles came to when he came to the United States to visit an organic farm, because there are so many small, organic farms here.
I spent a lot effort to find out where my food comes from and to get my food from the best possible sources. It became an adventure, and I’m still working on it. It’s never a perfect situation. We produce a lot of our food that we eat, and I’d say the majority of our food comes from people we know.
Sustainable Meat In The City
AC: One suggestion for folks living in big cities like New York who want to get local produce is to grow your own food. You can’t very well do that when it comes to meat. What do you do if you want locally and organically raised meat and you live in an urban setting?
NHN: Interestingly, just a few days ago, Kim Severson wrote a piece for the New York Times about how pasture-raised, locally-produced meats were becoming more and more available in New York City.
They interviewed a number of people who were buying meat – mostly from farmers markets, some through CSAs – through methods where they were getting directly connected with farms.
It’s very challenging when you’re in an urban area. You really have to seek out those kinds of things.
I travel around the country and I’m in contact with people working on these issues all over, and increasingly I’m hearing about more and more things like that – making it easier for people living in urban areas to get really good, non-industrial kinds of foods.
So, I’m convinced that it’s really a matter of making the effort. If you look for it, it’s probably there even if you don’t think it is in your own community.
Pigs Living Naturally
AC: Your new book is called “Righteous Porkchop” and it takes a look at industrial meat production in the United States. Tell me how pigs live naturally. What do they want to eat, where do they want to live, what do they want to do?
NHN: The domesticated pig that people eat as pork is very closely related to the wild boar. Researchers in Europe – there have been a couple major experiments where this is done – took domesticated pigs that had been on farms for many generations, and released them into large wild areas and observed them for extended periods of time.
They found that those pigs behaved almost identically to the wild boar. These animals live a lot like dogs do – they live in groups, they have hierarchies, they have a pecking order like chickens do. They’re very active creatures, they spend a lot of time moving about rooting and grazing – they love to graze, even though we don’t think of them as grazing animals – digging and foraging.
They’re omnivores. They will eat just about anything! The sows in particular are very interesting to watch, because they build amazing nests that sometimes even have roofs on them, they’re like little huts that they’ll build out of whatever is available, whether it’s straw or sticks or ferns or anything like that.
They separate themselves from the group to do this, and then they’ll stay off in this little hut for a number of days before returning to the group with their litters.
A well-known fact about pigs is that they’re very intelligent creatures. Their intelligence is comparable to dogs, so they have very interesting and active minds and bodies as well when they’re living in the wild.
AC: People do often compare their intelligence to that of dogs and use that as evidence for why we should treat pigs humanely. Do we have to have that human connection to the animal to justify treating it humanely?
NHN: In my view, any animal that we are taking the life of for food is an animal that deserves the best possible life that we can provide it. It’s just an obligation we have because we’re taking its life, but we should endeavor to behave that way to every living creature that we encounter, whether they’re in the wild or they’re domesticated.
Inside A Factory Farm
AC: Then, tell me how pigs live in a factory farm setting.
NHN: What’s really troubling about factory farms, in terms of the way pigs are kept, is that pigs are radically deprived of any ability to do any of those natural behaviors.
Their movement is incredibly restricted. Most of the pigs are kept in pens that are very crowded. The sows (breeding females) are kept in individual cages that are very, very small – so narrow that they’re unable to even turn around. They are particularly intensively confined.
All of the pigs are on a hard surface for their entire lives, so they’re not able to lie down or stand on something soft, and there’s nothing for them to do, they can’t dig or root. They’re left in this very barren, very boring environment, 24 hours a day.
They are standing above their own liquefied manure because they’re contained in buildings continually. These are very crowded buildings where you have at least a thousand pigs per building, and all their manure and urine is collected beneath where they’re standing.
What that means is that the air that they’re breathing smells incredibly bad, but it’s also laden with all kinds of contaminants.
Dust is a huge issue, but also hydrogen sulfite and ammonia because it’s right above this liquefied manure. Twenty percent of the workers have chronic lung problems, and the hog industry has repeatedly identified the lung infection problem within the pig herds as their number one problem.
They’re very unpleasant environments. I’ve been in quite a few of these buildings. They’re very depressing places. It’s not a place you’d want to go and spend any time.
Manure Lagoons And The Environment
AC: How is liquefied manure used in a factory farm, how is it stored, and what sort of environmental problems does it create?
NHN: Liquefied manure is a recent invention in farming; it’s only been done the last several decades. And the reason for liquefying the manure is to basically make it more portable.
It’s comparable to the human sewage system where you add water in a toilet. But the difference is that when you have a toilet and you flush it, that actually goes somewhere – either to a septic system that has a treatment system and a containment system, or it goes to a municipal sewage treatment plant.
That doesn’t happen at an animal factory. What happens is all of the liquefied manure is put in some sort of large holding containment. Often it’s just an open-air lagoon. Those are the most troubling systems, but there are some that are more contained than that.
In all of these systems, you have huge amounts of liquefied manure, hundreds of millions of gallons that are contained, and then it’s periodically sprayed or applied onto the land.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with putting manure on the land. In fact, that’s a good thing to do. But the problem is when you’re holding that much liquefied manure together in one place, there’s a huge problem with that holding lagoon, or tank – nearly all have leakage issues.
Spills And Air Quality
Hundreds of incidents have occurred with massive spills of liquid manure into streams and rivers, and some of the most dramatic have been in North Carolina with Hurricane Floyd and such. But they happen every year, all over the country.
There’s also a huge problem with air pollution from liquefied manure lagoons because a lot of the contaminants that are in the lagoon end up going into the air.
Once you do apply it to the land, because there’s so much manure, inevitably it gets over-applied so you have more applied to the land than will bind to the soil or will be taken up by the plants.
Again, it ends up in the water system or in the air. So, you have all of these different steps in the process where a lot of pollution is happening.
The whole system is rife with problems for food: the healthfulness of food, the safety of food. But, at each stage along the way, there are environmental contamination issues and even if you were able to address some of those, it’s fundamentally an inhumane way of treating animals.
So, the whole system just doesn’t work on so many different levels.
Manure On Traditional Farms
AC: On the traditional farms you visited, how did they handle the manure?
NHN: A few things that make system really different. On a traditional farm, you have fewer animals. That really differentiates them.
On a hog factory operation, you would have anywhere from 3,000 to 900,000 pigs in one place.
On a traditional farm where it’s based on pasture or in some cases a deep straw bedded kind of barn, you’re going to have a herd that’s a few hundred pigs.
So, there’s a difference in terms of the concentration. That’s incredibly important when you’re talking about manure because manure is very beneficial in the right amount. When it becomes too much, that’s when it becomes a contaminant.
They talk about the same concept when they talk about drugs. A safe drug, like Aspirin, is very beneficial in a small amount and becomes a toxin when you take too much of it. It’s the same thing with manure; a small amount of it is a very good thing for a farm, and when you have too much, it becomes a pollution problem.
Basically, pigs on a traditional farm are out of doors, they’re on pasture, they’re depositing the manure directly onto the pasture. And that’s immediately getting treated by the sunlight, it’s drying out from the sun, and the pathogens are being killed, and eventually that gets incorporated into the soil, and that’s very beneficial.
It’s a good thing. It helps the bacterial life in the soil. It adds nutrients back to the soil. So, it enhances the value of the land. It’s self-treating. Again, when you have an industrial operation, you have to deal with waste as a pollution problem. It’s a very different system.