Book Review - Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production

Beef is a big topic, and the most vocal speakers about it – from bloggers to professional chefs to scientists – present one of two opposing viewpoints: that we should produce (and eat) far less, or that we should proceed apace, or even increase our consumption. Nicolette Hahn Niman’s new book, Defending Beef, offers a new paradigm that does not embrace the appalling blueprint of conventional agriculture’s large-scale industrial model but does offer a somewhat different view of sustainable cattle ranching.

In her book, Niman challenges two ideas that (in some circles) have almost become conventional wisdom: that raising cattle is surely bad for the environment and that eating red meat, and beef in particular, is surely bad for us. In essence, she sounds a clarion call for raising more cattle on more grassland contending that, if managed properly, the presence of more cattle on the planet is actually better for the environment and that if we eat more beef we will be healthier. (In a nutshell, “properly” involves clustering cattle more densely and moving the herd around on significantly more grassland than our current conception of sustainable ranching.)

Niman, herself a vegetarian and a former environmental lawyer, is a rancher married to Bill Niman, of San Francisco’s acclaimed Niman Ranch, which was founded on the principles of sustainable animal husbandry. While she draws from her background in law, ranching and vegetarianism, she builds her beef-friendly argument from an informed and scientific viewpoint, identifying differences in production methods as she focuses on the environmental impacts of raising cattle and takes a hard look at the health claims that surround the consumption of beef.

She begins by challenging widely circulated studies that she contends have been contorted out of context, or worse, were speciously bad science to begin with. Starting with the issue of climate change, she identifies the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report that blamed meat for 18 percent of the responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions as an initial source of misunderstanding, pointing out that even the FAO’s own findings mitigate the conclusions one might draw from that statistic.

Niman agrees that CO2 is generated by the industry’s “automated systems for feeding, lighting, sewage flushing, ventilation, heating, and cooling” plus the fact that they “must also continually provide feed for their animals, the growing, harvesting, drying, and transporting of which” generate CO2. But outside of those industrial practices, she contends that raising cattle is not intrinsically a greenhouse grass contributor, stating that “pastoral livestock keepers create almost no carbon dioxide emissions.” She goes on to present similar findings regarding methane and nitrous oxide.

Niman also disputes the notion that the sheer amount of water needed to raise cattle should surely argue for a vegetarian diet as the better option, again citing research to support her position; she points out that some of the most water-intensive foods eaten by humans include common staples like rice. She goes on to state that the figures for grass-raised cattle are even better; ultimately she claims that beef in general is not inherently more water-intensive than other foods. Similarly, the issues surrounding biodiversity and overgrazing are treated with equal attention to researched data.

In the second section of the book, Niman presents her case against the idea that over the years increased beef consumption has contributed to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other serious health problems. Originally promulgated by a 1953 study, the idea that saturated fat was the primary cause of heart disease was wholeheartedly embraced after 1970 by a concerned and health-conscious America that dutifully rejected red meat and animal fats and switched to a diet more inclusive of chicken, fish and vegetable fats in an effort to espouse a more healthful diet.

The problem is the numbers don’t bear that out.

From 1970 to 2005, beef consumption decreased by 22 percent, butter by 15 percent and whole milk by 73 percent; at the same time, our diet included more poultry and fish and our intake of vegetable fats went up by 63 percent. But during that period, the obesity rate in children tripled, 33 percent of Americans now have hypertension and the leading cause of death in the US is heart disease.

As a matter of fact, studies now indicate that carbohydrates are much more of a culprit in our current health crisis. Sugar undeniably tops the list, but our increased consumption of processed grains is undoubtedly related to obesity and the upsurge in chronic diseases. The wholesome nature of our daily bread has seldom been called into question, but science is taking a closer look now. Sugar and flour are affordable and plentiful, and we’ve been consuming them as if there were no tomorrow. The ideal human diet is rich and varied; in our rush to figure out how to be healthy, it has been easy to get trapped into the tunnel vision of concentrating on single variables, often vilifying only one element of what we consume.

There is no shortage of public opinion regarding the raising and consumption of beef, from extreme animal rights activists to the growing numbers who espouse Meatless Monday; those positions are not hers. Niman is a strong advocate of sustainable livestock husbandry, but she makes clear that the overall view of this book is that more cattle (and more grassland for grazing) makes for a better environment in terms of climate and more beef makes for better human health. The book is her effort to countermand the “singularly negative view of ranching and beef [that] persists among many environmentalists.”

Niman makes a good argument for her ideas, and organizationally we at GRACE understand her argument that the connection between raising livestock and CO2, methane and nitrous oxide emissions is overstated, but we do not feel that it is negligible. By the same token her contention regarding the amount of water needed to raise cattle is arguable; read our position on this issue.

But we also support farmers and others who produce food as sustainably as possible, including the Nimans, and we appreciate the nuanced approach that Nicolette has taken to this subject. All in all, the book is worth a read; see what you think.