Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production

review by Lucia Stout Huebner, grass farmer, Beechtree Farm, Hopewell, New Jersey

The question of how meat is raised deserves much more discussion and examination. A lucid writer and a thorough researcher, Nicolette Hahn Niman’s 241 page book serves both as an excellent nonfiction reading and reference book on the subject of raising cattle and eating beef. The footnotes she includes on each chapter are worth the price of the book alone.  Niman delves into the science behind her arguments but also weaves in her personal voice, which holds the reader’s attention and keeps the subject from becoming too dry.

Niman examines every aspect of the subject of beef: climate change, overgrazing, water use, biodiversity, the important relationship between livestock and people, health issues and why beef is good food. She debunks the myth that cattle are a primary source of global warming while exposing the problems associated with raising cattle in CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

I especially enjoyed her discussion on the effect of grazing animals on soils, the importance of grasslands and the symbiotic relationship that grazing animals have on the environment. “These days it is often suggested that an important step toward correcting past missteps in agriculture would be reducing or removing animals – especially cattle and other grazing animals – from the world’s food system. But as the previous discussion on carbon sequestration, soil, water and biodiversity have illustrated, that would be moving in exactly the wrong direction. Humanity’s greatest agricultural misdeeds have been carried out not with grazing animals but by ripping asunder the earth’s dense protective plant cover.”

In Defending Beef, Niman also clarifies the vast health difference between beef raised on pasture versus raised on grain in CAFOs.  It makes no sense for our government to subsidize corn and sugar that lead to chronic health problems, including obesity and diabetes. Kudos to Niman for challenging this perverted and nonsensical system.

Niman’s voice as a vegetarian turned cattle rancher informs her approach to controversial and misrepresented issues surrounding livestock and beef.  She is very clear about the differences between animals raised on pasture versus in a factory and sets out specific goals that would make a huge difference in improving our present detrimental system of livestock production. She also thoroughly covers why grassfed meat is such good food.

Niman’s comprehensive examination of raising and consuming beef has already been a great help to me as a grassfed beef farmer. This spring our local adult school invited me to give a short course on grassfed beef. The school received an angry letter from a woman who vigorously objected to the topic. I was very grateful to recommend Niman’s book in my reply to this correspondent knowing that Niman’s arguments were backed up by facts and good science. It helped me to help pursue a reasonable dialogue with this person. Also recently, a friend asked for advice on how to explain to a church leader about the differences in how meat is raised and why this is important. Again I referenced Defending Beef with confidence.  This is an excellent book both for people like myself who are producing grassfed beef as well as those who simply wish to be better informed about the food they eat. Defending Beef is a book that will remain on my shelf through many vigorous book purges.