Benevolence and bacon
Nicolette Hahn Niman shows the horrors of factory farms and the value of sustainable ranching
The very pregnant woman wearing a fuchsia-colored, velour sweatjacket with a large, orange fabric flower pinned to its lapel—if one were judging by appearances or stereotypes (and if one was clueless as to the subject of the lecture about to commence)—could easily have been getting ready to give a talk on childbirth, or how to put together eye-pleasing outfits to wear during pregnancy.
Instead, the wholesomely attractive, long-haired brunette standing before a roughly half-filled Ruth Rowland Taylor Recital Hall last week was actually a high-powered lawyer (whose résumé includes working as senior attorney for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s environmental group, Waterkeeper Alliance) and livestock rancher by the name of Nicolette Hahn Niman. Niman was there to give a talk and slide show in support of her new book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Good Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms.
Niman (pronounced “Nyman”) is married to nationally known sustainable rancher Bill Niman, whom she met while working for Waterkeeper Alliance. Together they run a traditional-style, sustainable cattle, goat and turkey farm in the coastal town of Bolinas, Calif., where their animals roam and graze outdoors on acres of ranchland, and are not given drugs. That’s contrary to factory “farms,” where animals are confined in small, filthy spaces indoors for their entire lives and fed antibiotics to deal with diseases that come from living in such inhumane conditions.
“The title of my book is intentionally a little enigmatic,” began Niman. “It is meant to suggest right away that it is not anti-meat, anti-livestock or anti-farming. … Meat is not inherently ethically problematic.”
Niman’s time in New York working for Kennedy, she explained, honed her focus on “confinement livestock and poultry operations” and the severe water and air pollution that they cause. She had traveled to Missouri and North Carolina during those days to witness firsthand the kind of environmental destruction caused to the waterways and air of surrounding communities by huge factory farms from such things as the bacteria-laden contents of giant “manure lagoons” getting into groundwater and rivers.
“The single biggest cause of water pollution in this country is agriculture,” stressed Niman, “especially from manure from confinement livestock and poultry operations.”
She recalled talking to one woman in Missouri who lived near Premium Standard Farms, “the second-largest hog company” in the United States, who told her that the odor from the operation was so tremendous that she couldn’t hang her laundry on the clothesline to dry because it would end up smelling like hog manure. People in the area had stopped sitting on their porches for the same reason—the awful stench.
In California’s own San Joaquin Valley, said Niman, confinement agriculture is the biggest cause of air pollution and an increase in childhood asthma.
In North Carolina, “the No. 2 hog-producing state in the U.S.,” Niman heard stories of fishermen who had developed large sores that wouldn’t heal from fishing in factory-farm-polluted rivers for fish that happened to have similar sores, caused by microbes from manure pollution. Niman reminded the audience that during 1999’s devastating Hurricane Floyd, newcasters were noting the “unprecedented filithiness” of North Carolina’s floodwaters, due to pollution from flooded, overflowing hog manure lagoons.
Ninety-five percent of America’s pork, said Niman, is produced by confinement-method factory farms, a method she described as “totally unsustainable,” due to its detrimental impact on the environment, human health and animal health.
Her slide show moved historically, beginning by showing free-range hog, chicken and turkey farms of 50 years ago. Turkeys back then, she pointed out, were dark-feathered—closer genetically to wild turkeys. Today’s factory-farmed turkeys are all white, the result of a narrower (and thus more disease-susceptible) genetic pool.
Stopping on a slide of a “modern, industrial-style pig operation,” in which piglets were crowded together in an indoor enclosure standing on a grated floor for manure and urine to run through, Niman was prompted to point out that the animals had no bedding, never went outside and had to continually breathe fumes from the waste accumulating beneath them.
Thirty percent of the workers in such factory hog farms, she added, suffer from chronic lung problems.
“Would you want to eat food where the air is so dirty?” she asked.
A slide showing sows confined for their breeding lives in immobilizing cages prompted Niman to remind the audience that such confinement had been recently outlawed in California under Proposition 2, but is “totally legal in all of the major hog-producing states.”
Niman closed her talk and slide show with projected images of desirable farming operations, such as the Iowa pig farm run by her friend Paul Willis, whose pigs graze rotationally on green grass and give birth in huts in which they can instinctually make a nest from grass and straw.
Traditional-style farming, Niman summed up, is “knowing your animals, taking care of your animals. They’re not numbers; those animals are animals that you know.”
“What we are trying to do is produce healthful food in a way that’s good for the environment and treats the animals fairly as well,” she said.
In a short question-and-answer period, Niman stressed that people need to understand the full costs of the current confinement agriculture system—including the “externalized costs of pollution,” which make the costs of factory-farmed food artificially cheap.
“Animal foods are overconsumed, anyway,” offered Niman. The federal government, she added, should put some of its $10 billion in agriculture subsidies into funding a shift back to traditional, sustainable farming methods.
“What kind of agriculture do we want?” Niman asked the audience. “Think about it. Try to support traditional farms with your purchasing and with your actions. We can improve agriculture; we can be pioneers in the new form of animal farming, the righteous form of animal farming.”