Between the Lines: Defending Beef

Jan 5, 2015

Nicolette Hahn Niman at her California ranch
Credit Nicolette Hahn Niman

Why would a vegetarian defend beef? Nicolette Hahn Niman, environmental lawyer, rancher, food activist, and vegetarian, does just that in her controversial new book, Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher, published by Chelsea Green in October 2014.

Hahn Niman’s first book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (William Morrow, 2009), paves the path to her current work. Porkchop is an exposé of what ails "Big Ag," or big agriculture, the factory farms that Hahn Niman points out as major polluters across the planet, contributing to climate change, to the detriment of everyone’s health. It is also her love story, as vegetarian meets cattle rancher, Bill Niman, joining forces in marriage and business.

Defending Beef cover

Defending Beef takes a further step. As Hahn Niman began her new life on the Bolinas, California, cattle ranch (the Nimans also raise heritage turkeys), she found herself drawn deeper and deeper into the lifestyle and the business. If at first she merely stood nearby and held out the tools for her husband to do his work, Hahn Niman gradually found herself in love with ranch life and fully involved with it. Her research into all things beef led her to write her manifesto.

“Environmentalists and health advocates have long blamed beef and cattle ranching, but it’s just not that simple,” she says.

With meticulous research, Hahn Niman addresses every concern commonly associated with beef: health issues, climate change, water supply, biodiversity, overgrazing, world hunger, the morality of eating meat.

“Meat, especially red meat, has been perceived as elitist,” she says. “It’s a strange way to view beef when about a billion of the world’s poorest people are dependent on livestock.”

Beef, Hahn Niman argues, can in fact play an important role in ending world hunger, even while helping to restore a balanced climate. She has presented her perspective in numerous articles in New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, CHOW, and countless others, frequently stirring up dust. She is a frequent speaker at various food and farming events and conferences.

Hahn Niman majored in biology and French at Kalamazoo College and went on to earn her law degree, cum laude, from the University of Michigan in 1993. She served two terms on the Kalamazoo City Commission, worked as an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, and later became senior attorney for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental organization where she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry.

Hear Between the Lines with WMUK's Zinta Aistars every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.