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.
Egg And Dairy Factory Farms
I asked her to describe what she found on egg and dairy factory farms.
Nicolette Hahn Niman: This is a really important subject. I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years, and when I was first asked by Bobby Kennedy to work in the meat industry, I thought, “I want to work on issues that I’m really passionate about. I’m not passionate about that because I have nothing to do with that industry. I don’t even consume meat.”
The more I learned, the more I realized that I was a part of the system because I was consuming dairy and eggs. Dairies and egg operations are exactly the same as the kind of operations we’ve been talking about.
The vast majority of the dairies in the United States today have large numbers of cows. A traditional operation, might have had 25-50 cows – that was true up until just a few decades ago. You always had small herds, they were out on pasture most of the time.
Nowadays, most of the operations, the animals are never out on pasture, and you’ll have anywhere from 1,000 to 60,000 cows in one location. This is a totally different kind of system.
Their manure is collected and kept in liquefied manure lagoons and causes the same kind of pollution problems.
Egg operations are even worse from an animal welfare standpoint because the majority of them keep the hens continually confined in cages that are very crowded.
The size of a typical table top, that would be the cage, that would contain six to nine hens. They’re standing on the wire-grated floor, they’re so crowded they can’t even stretch their wings out much less engage in any sort of normal movement.
Their manure is very often liquefied. That’s not true at all hen operations – the liquefying of the manure – but it often is. Even if it’s not liquefied, you have tremendous problems as far as waste disposal and just the environmental issues you have when you have so much waste concentrated in one place.
Typical, traditional hen flocks would have been a few dozen hens. There are quite frequently a million hens in one of these big confinement operations. So, we’re talking about an extreme difference in terms of the concentration of the animals.
A Vegetarian Rancher
Annie Corrigan (Earth Eats): Why did you become a vegetarian?
NHN: I do get asked that a lot especially now that I raise livestock for a living. People find that quite curious.
I became a vegetarian shortly after my freshman year in college, and it was a gradual transition I made based on things I was hearing and things I was reading related to environmental problems, related to health problems, and related to the treatment of the animals.
Over the last ten years especially, I learned that the vast majority of the things I was hearing about are about the industrialized system, and they don’t really have anything to do with animals raised on a traditional farms that I advocate for now, that our own ranch is.
I have stuck with the vegetarian diet because I have been doing it for a long time and I’m very comfortable with it and I like eating that way. But, I’ve never accepted the idea that it’s immoral to raise animals for food.
In fact, the more I’ve gotten to learn over these last ten years about farming and most ecologically-sound food production methods, I really believe that animals are a part of that system. So, I am very supportive of good farming that involves animals.
Making Informed Food Choices
AC: Have you been confronted by vegetarians who have said nasty things to you?
NHN: Yes, that has happened to me quite frequently. Most of them aren’t too nasty. It’s more that it happens in the blogosphere, though. People don’t want to do it directly.
It’s certainly viewed by some people as very contradictory, that I would not eat meat myself but I would be involved in raising it.
Not one single one of those people that have made those criticisms has read my book “Righteous Pork Chop,” where I describe my own evolution as far as my personal diet and my understanding of food production.
Anyone who took the time to do that would probably not be nearly as critical because every one of us has individual reasons for our individual food choices, and I think the real issue is whether we’re thinking that through and trying to do our very best to eat in a way that’s ethical and healthful.
I firmly believe that I am doing that, and I think the people that have learned about my life and my choices would agree with that.
AC: In 2006, researchers genetically engineered bacon to contain omega-3 fatty acids, saying that bacon could now be good for your heart. What should we think about this?
NHN: I’m just astonished that with the limited resources we have to study healthful food and how to produce it – considering all of the problems we’re having globally with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, things that are connected to the way we eat – that we’re spending money on things like that when you could literally eat a couple walnuts or put a little flaxseed meal in with your cereal in the morning and get more Omega 3s just by doing that.
So, why on earth are we trying to create these laboratory versions of animals? You know, Omega 3s don’t really belong in pork.
When you need your Omega 3s, you need to get it from fish and vegetable sources. It just makes no sense to me.
We’re wasting our resources with it, but we’re also creating potential hazards down the road that we have no idea about, as far as what might actually be the long-term impact to human health to be eating genetically modified animals – we have no idea.
Occasionally I talk to people and they say, “Well, I’m sure there’s been a lot of safety testing.” No, there hasn’t.
It’s impossible to do long-term epidemiological studies of the healthfulness and safety of products like that because they haven’t existed for very long.
So, why would we even introduce something like that into the population when we have no idea what the long-term implications of it might be and it’s really something we don’t need.
The Price of Good Meat
AC: You’ve said that we should expect to pay more for good meat, but price is often one of the main factors people cite for not buying locally and organically produced meat. Can we expect the consumer to support a move away from the cheaper factory farmed meats?
NHN: It’s a very legitimate question. There’s no way to deny that there’s a significant price difference. So, how do we address that?
A lot of it has to do with shifting priorities in our budgets. For example, in the United States in 1925, we spent around 25-30% of our budget on food. Today, we spend about 9%. It’s one of the lowest percentages in the entire world.
When I lived in France for a year, I noticed that the food was more expensive but it was also better, and I later learned that the French people spend 14% of their income on food. They’re just spending more on food and getting better food for it.
We are spending a lot of money on clothes, we’re spending a lot of money on DVDs, iPods, whatever, and then we look at our food budget and think, “I can’t afford that.” Well, part of it is about shifting our money toward the food and away from other items.
I’ve done that in my own life. I’ve had to do that to make it possible to afford the foods that I want to eat.
Eat Less Meat, Eat Better Meat
Secondly, the whole Western world but certainly the United States, eats too many animal products. We’re eating too much meat, too much dairy, too much cheese, etc. and those tend to be the most expensive items in our budget.
So, by reducing our consumption – how frequently we’re consuming the meat, how much we’re consuming – and then buying better quality, it’s a really good way to make it affordable.
We need to think, “Eat less meat, eat better meat.” That is the fundamental basis for a way to make this more affordable.
There are also tricks to getting really good quality meat and making it affordable in terms of what parts of the animal you buy, what cuts.
My husband is really good at talking about this because he’s really a meat expert. But, there are wonderful parts of beef, pork and lamb that are not as well known in this country and not as utilized as much by home cooks especially. Chefs a lot of times do know about these secrets.
Because these parts of the animal are less in demand, they’re often cheaper and they’re absolutely as nutritious and in some cases more nutritious. You just need to learn how to prepare them. So, part of it is learning more about your meat and how to prepare it.
You certainly could be eating the offal, the organ meats and so forth, but you don’t have to go there. Lamb shank, for instance. They’re meat cuts, they’re not even organ meats, although organ meats are a good example of something else you can get cheaply. They’re extremely nutritious. And probably if you had a farmers market where a farmer was selling natural meat from his/her own ranch, you could probably talk to them and get some of the organ meats very cheaply.
Again, there are other cuts that are not as popular but are very nutritious, whether it’s pork butt, the blade meat, just lots of examples, things we need to learn a lot more about in terms of how to prepare it. You can save a lot of money that way.