In defense of the cattle industry

A new book flips an old debate on its head.


A new book out in November, Defending Beef, scrutinizes a host of today’s commonly held assumptions about the cattle industry. No, red meat isn’t making Americans unhealthy, writes author Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental attorney-turned California rancher. Nor should cows be so vehemently blamed for drought and climate change. Cattle ranching, she writes, can be extremely beneficial to the land.

At the height of Hahn Niman’s legal career, she was hired by Bobby Kennedy Jr. to start a national campaign to reform meat industry pollution. A few years later, she got into the ranching life when she married Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch in northern California. The natural meat company is well-known for traditional husbandry methods, no hormone use, and environmental land stewardship. In Defending Beef, Hahn Niman, who happens to be a long-time vegetarian, seeks to add nuance to what she deems an oversimplified public discussion about beef's environmental and health impacts in the U.S. She explained some of these nuances in a recent conversation with High Country News.

HCN Will you elaborate on your claim that, while there are slightly more cattle, there are overall fewer large animals on farms in the U.S. than there were a century ago?

NHN It’s commonly perceived that numbers of all livestock have increased exponentially over the past century. But if you add up all large farm animals, the number is actually lower now. Red meat is eaten less and there are fewer animals on the landscape. Of course, part of this is that the animals are killed when they’re younger. This country used to slaughter at 5 (years old), they now do it at 18 months. So, you end up getting more meat with fewer animals on the land. 

HCN Let’s talk about methane. It’s commonly accepted that cows emit a lot of methane and, therefore, contribute significantly to global climate change. But, as you say in your book, there are far fewer ruminant mammals roaming around now than there were prior to European colonization.  

NHN The methane thing has captured people’s imagination. The number of ruminants in the globe — animals like cows, elk, deer, buffalo — is lower today than it was historically. … The single biggest cause of human-generated methane in the 1980s was from rice farming. And because that became known and because there were concerns about global warming, there was pressure on the rice industry to reduce their methane emissions. To me the same rationale should be applied to cattle and beef. Is methane from cattle an intractable problem? No. There are easy methodologies for reducing the amount of gas. Putting small weights in the cow’s rumen (the first of several compartments in a cow's stomach) can bring gas production down by 25 percent.

HCN Can you talk about how we’ve learned to blame cattle for deforestation and why that’s not necessarily true?

NHN There are parts of the developing world — Brazil, Sudan, Indonesia — where fairly major deforestation is happening. In Brazil, the leading trigger really is the creation of fields for soy cultivation. There are a variety of causes of deforestation; raising cattle is one of them. But my point is that (deforestation) is not intrinsically related to cattle production. People shouldn’t be doing that to raise cattle; that’s a very bad human decision. But if it’s not inherently a part of it, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute (deforestation) to (cattle ranching).    

HCN In your book, you acknowledge that soil erosion and desertification are happening at such a rate that the world will run out of topsoil in little more than a century. And yet this isn’t a result of too many cattle. You argue that it’s a matter of managing cattle properly: Close, dense herds that are consistently on the move. Will you explain?  

NHN I do not deny that cattle can have an impact on the land that is negative. I dispute the characterization of this damage as “overgrazing.” What people are seeing in the American West is not over-grazing; it’s improper grazing. It mostly has to do with allowing the cattle to be too dispersed and not tightly managing them, or moving them frequently enough. In 1800, there were 70 million bison on the land. Our whole global ecosystem evolved with these enormous herds.

HCN Much of the western U.S. has experienced drought for three years in a row now. How do you respond to critics of the cattle industry who say that grazing exacerbates the drought?

NHN The overall understanding of how much water it takes to produce beef is misunderstood and exaggerated. A pound of beef and a pound of rice, not that much different as far as how much water it takes to produce it. When you look at the actual figures, (beef) is not that different than a lot of other foods. Chocolate, coffee, sugar — these are all water intensive foods.

When you have an area of degraded land, whether it’s been poorly grazed, or it’s abandoned, you have very little water retained. The total number of inches of rain you get annually is a far less important figure than how much is held in the ground. That’s what actually needs to be the focus. Well-managed cattle raising that keeps a dense vegetative cover on the ground might be the optimal way…to create ground that holds onto water. It just kind of flips this whole issue on its head.

Cattle grazing, when it’s done right, has an incredibly beneficial effect as far as how water works in our ecosystem. It could actually be a really good counter-drought strategy. And I don’t think that anyone really knows how exactly to do that. It’s an idea that people are beginning to realize…you do this correctly, you’re actually going to be using water a great deal more effectively and therefore, maybe we should actually be doing this in drought-stricken areas.

 Wyatt Orme is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @wyatt_orme.