Meet Nicolette Niman, a lawyer who for more than three decades was a vegetarian and the most eloquent American defenders of ethical meat. Huh, you say? The evidence is on her side. In her book, Defending Beef--new edition out spring 2021--she shows how foods from cattle―milk and meat, particularly when raised entirely on grass―are healthful, nutritious and an irreplaceable part of the world’s food system.
Applegate: You did not eat meat for decades but your main focus was defending it. Explain.
Nicolette: I was a vegetarian from age 19. About a year ago, at age 52 I decided for health reasons to reintroduce well-raised meat into my diet. That’s going really well, and it’s a decision I feel very good about (and I’m really enjoying the foods I get to eat again!)
So here’s the thing: Whether you eat meat, it’s important to support good farming practices because they have so many implications for both the health of people and for the planet. When I first started working on this, as an environmental lawyer, I (like many other vegetarians) assumed that reducing meat both in personal diets and the world food system was one of the best strategies for improving the environment. But over the years, based on what I’ve seen and done and read, I have become convinced that animals are a crucial part of an agricultural system that is truly ecologically regenerative. The closer we follow nature’s model when we farm, the closer we are to ecologically optimal agriculture.
Animals, from the tiny to the massive, are everywhere in nature’s regenerating systems. We need to move away from industrial systems--immediately.
Applegate: What new evidence is there to support ethical meat production Is the case stronger than it was when you published Defending Beef in 2014?
Nicolette: Yes, this was something that became patently clear as I was updating the book. There’s a growing body of research documenting how healthy soils capture atmospheric carbon and the value of animal impact to jump start the biological health, and thus the carbon sequestration potential, of soils. At the same time, there’s more research showing that well-raised foods of all types—meat, vegetables, fruits, grain—have both higher quality and more nutrients. When we focus on moving away from chemicals and toward regenerating soils, the benefits are manifold.
Applegate: Can the same argument be made for other meats? To what extent? (We do love bacon…)
Nicolette: Everything is about soil. When you’re talking about pork or other meats, there’s still as strong connection to soil health. Ideally, even those non-grazing animals are outside for a portion of their lives. But even for those animals that are raised indoors—and there are some very ecologically, high-welfare systems) the feeds can and should be grown in ecologically sound sways and the manures and litters should be composted. Whatever species of animal you are eating, there is a world of difference between the industrial and regenerative model. The meat is much tastier, too!