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

Defending Beef Book Review

Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman

Defending Beef ─ The Case for Sustainable Meat Production
by Nicolette Hahn Niman

It’s the blurb below the subtitle that gets your attention — The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher — and then the author’s surname. Yes, she is married to that Niman, and yes, she still eats no meat, now a matter of habit and comfort, she says, not any lingering animus. The irony could not be more acute, for this vegetarian makes as forceful and comprehensive a case for rational livestock husbandry as could be imagined.

Like the talented lawyer she was when she ran the Waterkeeper Alliance’s campaign to reform industrial livestock and poultry production, Hahn Niman assembles a case and argues it point by point. The vast advantage she enjoys over a writer making similar arguments from an office in Austin or New York comes from her time on the Niman Ranch. A wealth of personal experience percolates through her case, giving it detail, color and emotional logic. First-hand familiarity with the cycle of birth, death and renewal seem to have defused any ethical objections to eating meat, though that issue is not the book’s main subject.

Much of the material here will be familiar to those who follow the issues that swirl around sustainability and health, both human and animal. The trick to telling this kind of story has to do with rendering reams of data into a relatively swift narrative without oversimplifying it. Whether telling the story of Allan Savory and mob grazing or recapping the findings of the late John Yudkin — author of Pure, White and Deadly, the book that fingered sugar for crimes against health 40 years ago — Hahn Niman never misses a step.

Hahn Niman also made a canny decision by placing her most radical chapter at the front of the book, which gives it time to sink in while the subsequent sections pour a foundation. Laying into lazy thinking and data-free assumptions with hammer and tong, she argues persuasively that meat production in general and cattle ranching in particular do much, much less damage to the climate than commonly supposed. Her reasoning is too complex to rehash here, and the question won’t be settled for years. Suffice to say that Niman’s deployment of rhetoric and statistics feels honest, not like a clever lawyer’s sophistry. When she notes, for instance, that many more acres of rain forest are cleared for soybean growing than raising beef, surely this is relevant. (Later in the book, shibboleths about the overgrazing of the American West also fall to her scythe.) And the horrendous environmental practices of those segments of the livestock business that gave us hormone- enriched beef and enormous, stinking lagoons have no fiercer opponent.

Put another way, Defending Beef gives advocates of sustainable livestock a powerful weapon.

— Chris Walters

Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production by  Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2014. Chelsea Green. ISBN: 9781603585361

This review appears in the November 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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