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March 30, 2009

A Rancher's Critique of Animal Agriculture

Whether it was Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson, it’s nothing new to have ranchers and enthusiasts of living off the land offer strong critiques of factory farming. Traditional ranchers and other animal producers have always done things differently than factory farmers. But Nicolette Hahn Niman’s "Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms," is one of the best I’ve seen in a long while. Partly because of her extremely unusual background as an environmental attorney, animal welfare advocate, and now a rancher (since her marriage to long-time rancher Bill Niman), Hahn Niman is a formidable figure in contemporary food policy debates, and a staunch advocate of rethinking our relationship with animals reared for food.

Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Hahn Niman"Righteous Porkchop" traces Hahn Niman’s decade-long personal and intellectual odyssey, from her time in local Michigan government, to her work as an environmental lawyer investigating “hog factories” with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to her courtship with Bill—a rancher committed to offering a commercial alternative to factory farms—to her current work as an advocate of traditional husbandry.

The book is far more than a memoir, however. It’s an incisive exposé of the modern meat, poultry, and dairy industries, based on her considerable experience and methodical approach to research. It’s a highly readable work, too, offering an excellent brief history of the industrialization of animal agriculture, a spirited account of her fight against giant hog factories responsible for so much environmental despoliation in North Carolina, an exploration of the connections between industrial fish farming and animal agriculture, an indictment of the failure of environmental agencies to enforce laws against major polluters from industrial agriculture, and a personal account of the challenges of sourcing and purchasing food from farmers committed to humane husbandry.

In "Righteous Porkchop," Hahn Niman also does a terrific job of answering the so-called “profitability” claim, the idea that factory farming is necessary and unavoidable as a model of raising animals for food. It’s the industry’s political and economic power that explains the prevalence of industrial facilities, not their greater economic efficiency. Because of that power, agribusiness can foist all kinds of external costs onto government and taxpayers.

The Nimans’ union, which brought together a vegetarian and a rancher both committed to the principle of doing better than factory farmers in their treatment of animals, is a dynamic theme throughout the book. Bill is a pioneering figure who proved that it is possible to raise farm animals with commercial success, without resorting to exceedingly cruel practices like gestation crates or all-indoor confinement, and he was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which concluded that the current practices of factory farms pose unacceptable risks to public health, the environment, and animal welfare. Hahn Niman is a very rare hybrid—a rancher and vegetarian—and she believes that all of us, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, should support those who are trying to raise the bar for animal welfare in the agricultural sector.

Michael Pollan, in his best-selling book "In Defense of Food," gives us pithy advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Hahn Niman tells us some similar things in her work. Eat less meat. Return more animals to pasture. Even pay a little more for the foods that ensure a higher standard of welfare. Vote with your fork, alleviate suffering, and shift the market. And, as she writes, “Do not thoughtlessly eat foods from animals. Know the source. Question the methods.”

The message of this fine work also resonates with the policy of The HSUS on these questions. We believe in the Three Rsreducing the consumption of meat and other animal-based foods; refining the diet by eating products only from methods of production, transport, and slaughter that minimize pain and distress; and replacing meat and other animal-based foods in the diet with plant-based foods.

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