Nicolette Hahn Niman: 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 US 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.

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-0ld 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 blogpost: 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.


  1. says teach farmers and ranchers to mimic this system on large and small farms and ranches. Sometimes called “mob grazing” this labor-intensive (jobs!) method yields results in just a few years. As the farmer moves the cattle from area to area, careful timing to achieve a balance between the animals and the soil colonies below, as the carbon in livestock waste is carried deep throughout the soil. Healthy soil yields healthy food for livestock, which is healthy for human beings. “You are what you eat eats.”

    HMI and others claims that only a few years is required to achieve “Super Soil” using this holistic, natural process. No longer do farmers need to apply chemicals, fertilizers, or additives to their soil, they can sell their tractors and hay making equipment and use ATV’s to get around. More animals on the same area means higher profits for family farmers and more jobs in the local food industry. Oh yeah, all that pee and poop and trampling that the animals have left behind, that’s carbon being taken from the air (by plant photosynthesis) and locked into the soil. Maybe one day farmers will be paid for this removal of greenhouse gases as it benefits us all. One Holistic Management expert makes the claim holistic grazing management on all our grasslands would enable the world to “…return to pre-Industrial Age levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases” in five years.”

    Only one way to find out; let the cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep have a go at these huge problems and see if it works.

  2. Frank Caesar Branchini says

    This is fundamentally misguided thinking from someone who ought to know better. The American Dietetic Association whis is neither a vegetarian organization nor an animal rights group, long ago documented the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Here some excerpts from their conclusions all derived from scientific research:

    Ischemic Heart Disease.

    Two large cohort
    studies (97,98) and one metaanalysis
    (99) found that vegetarians
    were at lower risk of death from ischemic
    heart disease than nonvegetarians.
    The lower risk of death was seen
    in both lacto-ovo-vegetarians and vegans
    (99). The difference in risk persisted
    after adjustment for BMI,
    smoking habits, and social class (97).
    This is especially significant because
    the lower BMI commonly seen in vegetarians
    (99) is one factor that may
    help to explain the lower risk of heart
    disease in vegetarians.


    Adventist vegetarians are reported to
    have lower rates of diabetes than Adventist
    nonvegetarians (125). In the
    Adventist Health Study, age-adjusted
    risk for developing diabetes was twofold
    greater in nonvegetarians, compared
    with their vegetarian counterparts
    (98). Although obesity increases
    the risk of type 2 diabetes, meat and
    processed meat intake was found to
    be an important risk factor for diabetes
    even after adjustment for BMI

    Among Adventists, about 30% of
    whom follow a meatless diet, vegetarian
    eating patterns have been associated
    with lower BMI, and BMI increased
    as the frequency of meat
    consumption increased in both men
    and women (98). In the Oxford Vegetarian
    Study, BMI values were higher
    in nonvegetarians compared with
    vegetarians in all age groups for both
    men and women (139). In a cross-sectional
    study of 37,875 adults, meateaters
    had the highest age-adjusted
    mean BMI and vegans the lowest,
    with other vegetarians having intermediate


    Vegetarians tend to have an overall
    cancer rate lower than that of the
    general population, and this is not
    confined to smoking-related cancers.

  3. tracy says

    I’d be curious as why she became a vegetarian in the first place. Also given all of the studies about milk and dairy products, one might want to consider veganism as you are more than half way there. A vegetarian cattle rancher makes no sense. I can guarantee she has not witnessed one of her cattle being slaughtered.


  1. […] He’s right about that. Jason Clay of WWF, a prominent environmentalist who specializes in agriculture, has suggested that raising animals in the much-maligned CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) may be better for the planet. (See my 2011 blogpost, How to Green a Hamburger). But Nicolette Hahn Niman, the environmentalist-turned-rancher, favors grass-fed beef like the ones she and her husband, Bill Niman, raise at BN Ranch. (See my blogpost, Nicolette Hahn Niman: The carnivore’s dilemma) […]

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