Soil and water

Q&A with ‘Defending Beef’ author Nicolette Hahn Niman


Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian and environmental lawyer turned cattle rancher, freed Defending beef: the arguments for sustainable protection in 2014. The manifesto called for a revolutionary food system involving livestock, which she believed was necessary for the restoration and future health of the planet and its people.

Seven years later, she still believes it’s true. And with discussions of meat production and consumption issues more present and urgent than ever, Hahn Niman is back with a revised and expanded version of the book, released from Chelsea Green Publishing on Tuesday. There, she presents up-to-date research and analysis on issues such as the alternative meat movement, how the COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the meat industry, and the contribution of livestock to global warming.

We sat down with Hahn Niman to discuss what has and hasn’t changed since the first edition of Beef Defense and how to work with her husband Bill Niman on Niman Ranch reshaped his vision of meat production and his respect for the land.

Nicolette Hahn Niman’s book came out seven years ago. Photo by Miles Niman.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Modern Farmer: Why was it important to release an updated version of Beef Defense now?

Nicolette Hahn Niman: This is more than ever a discussion about whether we should eat meat, and especially whether we should eat beef. I just think it’s a really important issue in terms of the health of the planet and in terms of human health. There has been a lot more science, a lot more analysis done on a lot of the issues that I discussed in the first book.

I really rewrote it, going through every paragraph and adding a lot more research into things like sequestering methane and carbon in the soil and a lot of meat safety. I have evolved my thinking about what is really wrong with the way we eat and the way we produce food, in particular this hyper-industrialization of the food system and our diets and the value of meat in as a real all, nutrient rich foods. It’s quite a different book.

MF: You were a biologist, vegetarian, lawyer and environmental activist before adding “cattle breeder” to the list. How has this shaped your take on meat?

NHN: My own background is so unusual, I have a science background, legal background, and environmental advocacy training, then vegetarianism for many years, then raising animals for food. It’s all in one person, and people are interested in hearing about it, like, “Well, how did it go? “” Over the years, I have felt more comfortable and used to talking about it.

The best thing about my diverse and multifaceted background is that it really helps me see the complexity of things. I’m not looking [the issues surrounding beef] as too simplistic. It is much more complex than good or bad. I’ve been a vegetarian for 33 years, so I’ve heard and experienced all of these arguments about why you shouldn’t eat meat… But at the same time, I see the value of animal foods.

MF: How has living and working on a ranch changed your view of agriculture?

NHN: It really helped me understand how [farmers and ranchers] constantly balance different considerations and change is difficult. There are a lot of obstacles in making changes or adjustments.

On a daily basis, as a farmer or rancher, you face unique problems and challenges. You have unique challenges that present themselves every year, depending on what is happening with the weather, what is happening in the neighboring lands. There are many, many things that are going to affect you that are unique each year. Likewise, with each unique day and opportunity, you decide what to do about these issues. And so there is a lot of creativity and experimentation that can come out of it.

MF: The movement of vegetable meat has really accelerated since your release Beef Defense. Can you explain how you approached the subject in this updated edition?

NHN: One of the new parts of the book is an explicit discussion of the reciprocating movement of meat, in which I argue that not only is it not a solution to the problems that plague human health and the food system, but it is is actually the same. For me, the problem with our food system is industrialization, and [fake meat is] an industrial food. It’s produced agriculturally, industrially, almost universally, and it’s a highly processed food before it hits your plate.

MF: What do you hope the readers of this second edition will take away from reading the book?

RHN: I’m trying to get people to a point where they can move forward together and figure out what the middle ground is and move towards solutions. What I’m trying to do is get people to think more about how nature works, agriculture, food systems, our bodies, our health and diet, and better understand the links, understand the complexity, understand the nuance.

The tone of my book very consciously engages people who are actually involved in agriculture to try to help them see how it is in their own best interests to improve their practices… I don’t think anyone has achieved agricultural nirvana. I hope to involve people in agriculture, and [encourage] wondering how they can evolve into this more regenerative form of food production that also produces really nutrient-dense foods.

MF: The term “regenerative agriculture” is often used in discussions about the future of agriculture. What role do animals, including cattle, play in this?

RHN: If you want to have a truly regenerative farming system, you have to have the animals. They add an element that cannot be replaced by chemical amendments to the soil. It has been done for decades and has not worked. Regenerative agriculture is all about understanding the relationships and connections between living things and trying to foster life. And for me, that’s absolutely the direction agriculture needs to take, whether it’s small or large.

MF: What types of practices would you like to see more of on beef farms in the United States?

RHN: We have to listen to new ideas and find what makes more sense and better for soil and water. There has been a fairly significant change in that regard. People like Gabe Brown [the North Dakota farmer and rancher who advocates for holistic soil management] are really changing the conversation within traditional farming circles. He completely changed his model, and it was much more profitable for him economically. In my opinion, Dave Brown is the most important person in America in this role, because it really gets the people in mainstream farming to say, “Wait a minute, there might be a better way. do it and quite different from what I “did.”

The mindset should be that we are on a constant path to improving what we do. It’s another time [than when I wrote the earlier edition]. I really think the mindset, even in traditional farming, is that we have to re-examine the practices. We have to use new scientific information and new anecdotal information that we get from other people in our professions, to keep trying to do better at what we do. We have the ability to do it; it’s a job that allows that.


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