Can You Be an Environmentalist and Still Eat Meat?

This is not a new question or a new debate, but perhaps for the first time, two non-meat eaters took different sides in the argument during a recent debate at Berkeley’s Brower Center. The conversation between vegetarian-rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman and “Mad Cowboy” Howard Lyman focused on the ethics of eating meat and the environmental impacts of meat production.

Hahn Niman became a vegetarian in college but later married rancher Bill Niman. She is the author of the book Righteous Porkchop, which discusses the differences between small-scale, environmentally responsible animal husbandry and factory farming. Though she believes that eating meat can be ethically and environmentally defensible, she chooses to remain a vegetarian.

Lyman is a former large-scale rancher whose come-to-vegan moment came in the form of a near-fatal spinal tumor that doctors told him was caused by the chemicals used in farming. His conversion and the publication of his book, Mad Cowboy, got him on Oprah and got Oprah into trouble with the Cattlemen’s Beef Association when she mentioned in the interview that the news about Mad Cow Disease might just put her off her hamburgers. EcoSalon attended the debate which was sponsored by Earth Island Journal and moderated by Ari Durfel, founder of Gather Restaurant (also known as the guy who kept his trash in his living room for a year.)


The first question was: What are the environmental reasons to be vegetarian?

Predictably, both participants agree that factory farming is absolutely the worst thing for the environment, as well as for human and animal health. But they answer the question differently. Both experts touch on meat production as a major cause of global warming. Lyman focuses on the term humane meat, asking if killing can be humane and asserting that the only reason we eat meat is because we have an addiction to fat.

Hahn Niman focuses on the facts behind meat production and global warming, citing the often quoted statistic that 18 percent of global warming gasses come from meat production. But, she asserts, “nearly half this from deforestation in developing world and very little of that meat is going to USA. In the USA we are not deforesting at all for meat production.” Hahn Niman goes on to say that livestock production, when done correctly, can actually build soils and contribute to reforestation while also providing valuable fertilizer for agriculture.

“Both of you agree large scale CAFO farming is not okay. Is there a certain scale that you could be comfortable with? Or is general livestock across board wrong?

Acknowledging briefly that of course there is a way to farm better, Lyman stays focused on individual consumer actions rather than farming practices, asserting that there is no way a person can live in an urban area like Berkeley, eat meat and benefit the environment. “Unless you’re willing to raise and kill own meat, no way can you have anything but a negative effect”.

Hahn Niman makes the point that talking about avoiding meat is a false choice because all food production contributes to global warming through carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide omissions. She also mentions that certain non-meat items have a larger carbon footprint than certain meat items. Hahn Niman then reverts to Niman Ranch talking points, asserting that at Niman Ranch, 99 percent of diet is naturally growing/occurring grains and grasses produced by the sun without irrigation feed, or chemicals. When animals eat this basically free food, they become nutritious food for humans. She adds that 85 percent of land in the USA isn’t suitable to row farming of grains and vegetables and ends with the question, “If it’s not meat, what is the appropriate use of land for best impact?”

The next question focused on the ethics of eating meat.

The fact that Hahn Niman is a vegetarian who believes meat eating is a personal and ethical choice puts her in an interesting position and illustrates how stickily personal questions of ethics can be. She raises animals and bonds with them. She is a rancher who has no ethical problem with killing animals, but evidently has a personal problem with it. Perhaps she just doesn’t like meat, but she never says so. She does say that she believes the human body has evolved to eat meat and that our brains developed because of it. She emphasizes that as animals, we are part of the system of living, dying, and regenerating.

Lyman takes issue with Hahn Niman’s assertion that we evolved to eat meat, saying that we were designed to be herbivores and that animals have feelings and the capacity for love. He says if we don’t have to eat animals to survive, how can we kill them? Are we willing to do it ourselves, or would we rather have someone else do it? He says that eating animals is just feeding our addiction and it is wrong.

Hahn Niman vehemently disagrees that human beings evolved to be herbivores, adding that raising animals for food doesn’t mean you don’t care or don’t think animals have feelings. She says death by humane slaughter is better than violent or slow death in the wild (a bit of red herring, if you ask me). For her, the biggest question is how the meat is produced and the answer is that an omnivorous diet can be sustainable.

The moderator asks Howard, whether or not we were designed to eat meat, do we have to eat meat?

Howard throws out his own red herring, saying, “If we’re true omnivores why aren’t we eating our cats and dogs?” Then he says he supports small-scale farms doing it better but does not think animals are necessary for his survival, though he’s not convinced everyone has to become a vegan.

Hahn Niman counters that omnivore doesn’t mean you eat everything. “We make choices. But studies show omnivorous diet gives you survival and immune advantages – just avoiding meat as a category when some things are worse than meat for the environment is not a reasonable response.”

During the audience question period both speakers had an opportunity to offer real-world tips on how to eat better for the environment and also a perspective about why the factory-farming model exists in the first place.

Hahn Niman says to minimize footprint, you should get dairy and meat from grass-fed sources. Such foods have a lower footprint, are healthier, tastier, and are almost never fed drugs. Unprocessed, fresh, whole foods close to harvest are always good choices, as is eating seasonally. “Applying all these values to all of what you eat, whether meat, vegan or vegetarian, is going to be more environmentally sound and healthier.”

Lyman says the best thing a person can do is to spend some time thinking about what you actually like and what you actually want to eat for your life. Do research, start with small steps. Try Meatless Monday. “Look at issue honestly and ask what you are truly able and willing to do. And ask what you must do for posterity.”

One member of the audience asks: “How on earth could we farm enough meat sustainably to actually make it mainstream for world? Could we convert animal agriculture entirely to pasture?”

Hahn Niman says yes; “You could absolutely do that if western cultures reduced consumption modestly. I’m a huge advocate of reduced meat consumption – I support meatless Monday. But abolishing totally is not a good idea.”

Lyman says, “If we wanted to talk about viability of doing things right, we have to price it according to the value of inputs going in. We would have to remove those subsidies [going to CAFO producers]. We would have people driving up to McDonald’s and having to pay eight dollars for a burger. Niman isn’t available everywhere and isn’t affordable for most. And Niman can’t make enough profit to expand. People with the gold are gaming the system. It is rigged.”

What do you think? Can you be an environmentalist and eat any meat, even “sustainably raised” meat?

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Laurel Fan

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.