Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian and environmental lawyer turned cattle rancher, released Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Protection in 2014. The manifesto called for a revolutionized food system that involved cattle, which she believed were necessary to the restoration and future health of the planet and its people.
Seven years later, she still believes that to be true. And with discussions about issues in meat production and consumption more present and pressing than ever before, Hahn Niman is back with a revised and expanded version of the book, out from Chelsea Green Publishing Tuesday. In it, she presents updated research and analysis on issues such as the alternative meat movement, how the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the meat industry and livestock’s contribution to global warming.
We caught up with Hahn Niman to discuss what has—and hasn’t—changed since the first edition of Defending Beef and how working with her husband Bill Niman on Niman Ranch has reshaped her outlook on meat production and her respect for the land.
Nicolette Hahn Niman’s book was originally released 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 Defending Beef now?
Nicolette Hahn Niman: It’s more of a discussion than ever about whether we should be eating meat at all, and especially whether we should be eating beef. I just feel this is a really important issue in terms of the health of the planet and in terms of human health. There’s been a great deal more science, a lot more analysis done on a lot of the issues I discuss in the first book.
I really rewrote it, examining every paragraph and adding a great deal more of the research on things like methane and soil carbon sequestration and a lot of things about the healthfulness of meat. I’ve evolved my thinking about what’s really wrong with the way we’re eating and the way we’re producing foods—in particular, this hyper-industrialization of the food system and our diets and the value of meat as a real, whole, nutrient-rich food. It’s quite a different book.
MF: You’ve been a biologist, a vegetarian, a lawyer and an environmental activist before adding “cattle rancher” to the list. How has that shaped your perspective on meat?
NHN: My own journey is so unusual, having the scientific background, and the legal background, and the environmental advocacy background, and then vegetarianism for many years, and then raising animals for food. All of that is in one person, and people are interested in hearing about that, like ‘well, how did that happen?’” I’ve gotten more comfortable and more used to talking about that over the years.
The best thing about my diverse, multi-faceted background is that it really helps me see the complexities of things. I do not view [the issues surrounding beef] as over-simplistic. It’s way more complex than good or bad. I was a vegetarian for 33 years, so I have heard and I have lived all of those arguments about why you shouldn’t eat meat…But at the same time I see the value in animal-based foods.
MF: In what ways has living and working on a cattle ranch reshaped your views about agriculture?
NHN: It has really helped me to understand how [farmers and ranchers] are balancing different considerations all of the time, and changes are difficult. There are a lot of obstacles for making any shifts or adjustments.
Day to day, as a farmer or rancher, you are dealing with unique issues and challenges. You have unique challenges that come up every year, depending on what’s happening with the weather, what’s happening on neighboring land. There are many, many things that are going to affect you that are unique every year. Likewise, with every day and unique opportunity, you get to decide what to do about these issues. And so there’s a lot of creativity and experimentation that can come out of that.
MF: The plant-based meat movement has really accelerated in the years since you released Defending Beef. Can you discuss how you’ve approached the topic in this updated edition?
NHN: One of the new parts of the book is an explicit discussion of the alternative meat movement, in which I argue that not only is that not a solution to the problems that are plaguing human health and the food system, but it’s actually more of the same. To me, the problem with our food system is industrialization, and [fake meat is] an industrial food. It’s produced on an agricultural level, industrially, almost universally, and it’s a highly processed food before it gets to your plate.
MF: What do you hope readers of this second edition take away from reading the book?
NHN: I try to move people to a point where they can move forward together and figure out what the common ground is and move toward solutions. What I’m trying to do is get people to think more about how nature works, how agriculture works, how food systems work, how our bodies work, and our health and diet, and get more into understanding the connections, understanding the complexity, understanding the nuance.
The tone of my book is very consciously engaging people that are actually involved in agriculture to try to help them see how it’s to their own benefits to improve their practices…I don’t think anyone has reached the farming nirvana. I’m hoping to engage people in agriculture, and [encourage] them to ask themselves how they can move toward this more regenerative form of producing food that also produces really nutrient-rich foods.
MF: The term “regenerative agriculture” is often used in discussions about the future of farming. What role do animals—including cattle—play in that?
NHN: If you want to have a truly regenerative agricultural system, you have to have the animals. They add an element that cannot be replaced with chemical amendments to the soil. That’s been done for decades and didn’t work. What regenerative agriculture is all about is understanding relationships and connected connections between living things, and trying to foster life. And to me, that is absolutely the direction that farming has to go and whether it’s on a small scale or large scale.
MF: What kinds of practices do you wish to see more of on cattle farms in the US?
NHN: We need to be listening to new ideas, and figuring out what is more logical and better for soil and water. There’s been a pretty significant shift 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 mainstream agricultural circles. He completely changed the model, and it’s been far more economically beneficial to him. To my mind, Dave Brown is the most important person in the United States in that role, because it’s really getting people in mainstream agriculture to say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe there’s a better way to do this and quite different than what I’ve been doing.’”
The mindset needs to be that we’re on a constant journey toward improving what we’re doing. It’s a different era [than when I wrote the earlier edition]. I really feel that the mindset, even in mainstream agriculture, is that we need to be reexamining practices. We need to be using 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’re doing. We have the opportunity to do that; it’s a profession that allows that.