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Defending Beef – Book Review

It’s really difficult to know where to start with this review of “Defending Beef” by Nicolette Hahn Niman (The Case for Sustainable Meat Production: The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher). After taking about 40 notes in the first 100 pages, I gave up due to the immense fact-dump exploding off every page. There are so many topics to dig into here, each one requiring an entire post unto themselves. Here are the more valuable themes that stuck with me.

The book is divided into two sections:

  1. Cattle: Environment and Culture
  2. Beef: Food and Health

Niman starts off by laying into the last decade of misinformation on how cattle impact climate change. She pulls apart the infamous FAO report: “Livestock’s Long Shadow” which has been the driving force behind beef’s vilification since 2006, claiming that 18% of all greenhouse gases come from the animal agriculture sector.

While Niman is a staunch opponent of factory farming, she dissects the FAO’s report superbly noting how their calculations were overly simplistic and just plain wrong.

The report meticulously calculates all facets of beef production from the cutting down of rain forests, to fertilizer production, to all transportation involved in these activities. But when they looked at the transportation sector to come up with a  mere 13% of all global emissions, they didn’t calculate everything from the costs of drilling for petroleum, or refining it, or transporting it, or the manufacturing of the vehicles… you get the idea. It’s not even close to an apples-to-apples comparison.

Defending Beef Book
Defending Beef – Buy Now

Niman also notes that the when calculating the released carbon from cutting down and burning trees to make space for soy to be grown; that is a one-time event. That is to say, you can’t factor in that calculation annually as adding to overall greenhouse emissions. And another note, Niman states that the vast majority of that soy doesn’t even go to US cows. The majority goes to China and the EU (less than 1% goes to US cattle).

In other words, if American’s were to suddenly stop eating beef tomorrow, it wouldn’t put a single dent in the climate crisis we’re facing. To put it simply; beef is not the enemy here. If the entire lifecycle of the transportation sector were truly calculated, those numbers would dwarf beef production by comparison.

But the damage is already done. Everybody “knows” that the only way to stop climate change is to stop eating beef.

Niman also tackles the all-to-vital and misunderstood importance of grass-fed cows. They’re not just healthier and happier, they play a vital role in carbon sequestration.

Here’s the problem with factory-farmed cattle (in the US at least):

  • Factory-farmed cattle start their lives on grass (as all cows do). Then around 1 year old, they get shipped off to a feedlot of dirt and are fed corn and soy byproducts (Note: These byproducts are the inedible waste of corn and soy harvesting: completely inedible, Niman points out. Just one more point against those who say all that soy and corn fed to cows could be going to humans. In fact, she says, some of that rainforest soy ends up as soy milk and other soy products unbeknownst to “health-conscious consumers”)
  • Their manure is either dried or pumped into festering lagoons which leak into the groundwater which are methane-producing factories unto themselves (not to mention all the antibiotics and hormones that seeps into the groundwater as well via these lagoons as well).

You’ll notice: there’s no grass on these lots. If these cows were raised AND finished on grass (i.e. eaten their whole lives as nature intended), carbon emissions could be a net positive through the process of carbon sequestration.

Here’s the how this works with grass-fed cows:

  • These ruminants co-evolved with the grasslands of the world in a vital symbiotic relationship.
  • The cows eat the grass (they trim it, actually… like free-range lawnmowers).
  • The cows poop and pee which fertilizes the grass.
  • The grass is stimulated to grow (regenerate) from the trimming and free fertilizer (this also prevents it from overgrowing and dying).
  • In properly managed ranges, the cows move on, the grass grows back AND carbon is pulled out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis and stored in the soil (not to mention all the oxygen they put back into the atmosphere as well).

It’s much more complicated than that, but the gist is:

The bottom line Niman is making here is: cows are not the problem with climate change. In fact, they are part of the solution. Unfortunately, the demonization has been long and lasting, which Niman is trying to set straight in this book.

Next comes the nutrition argument in part II of her book

The idea that meat (beef especially) and the associated saturated fat is unhealthy for us, is better tackled by the work of Nina Teicholz in her book “The Big Fat Suprise.” But the basics are: saturated fat has been wrongly accused of causing poor health. Beef especially has been vilified due to its high-fat content and greenhouse gas emissions. Both of which, Niman debunks in her book.

Beef, as she writes, is probably the best source of essential nutrients we need to survive thrive. If you’ve been following the Paleo movement for any length of time, you probably already understand the importance of bioavailable nutrients… many of which are ever-present in beef. Suffice it to say, Niman is pointing out that beef is not the villainous food we’ve come to believe it to be, but may, in fact, be the most nutrient-dense food we know of (there’s a wealth of knowledge on red meat over at ChrisKresser.com).

Niman also notes that a huge number of people in developing countries rely exclusively on cattle and other animal agriculture for their existence. They don’t have access to year-round food, especially annual crops like wheat and corn. They require the milk and meat of domestic animals to feed their families when crops can’t do it alone. Reduction of meat isn’t going to help these people, it will only harm them.

Nicolette Hahn Niman on fence
Nicolette Hahn Niman

Finally, Niman sums up her argument that beef has been unfairly maligned these past few decades due to poor science, bad media coverage, and outright disinformation from some sectors. The bottom line is, according to Niman:

  • Beef is sustainable and regenerative under proper management (grass-fed on properly managed lands).
  • Beef is pound for pound more nutrient dense than most other foods and is more available worldwide.
  • Beef is ethical when you consider the immense value they bring in both nutrition for humans as well as our ecosystem.

If you only read half of the book, you’ve already got more information than 10 documentaries could give you. An absolute must for any Paleo or ancestral eater.

About the Author: Nicolette Hahn Niman is the author of Defending Beef. She previously served as senior attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, running their campaign to reform the concentrated production of livestock and poultry. In recent years she has gained a national reputation as an advocate for sustainable food production and improved farm-animal welfare. She is the author of Righteous Porkchop (HarperCollins, 2009) and has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, and The Atlantic online. She lives on a ranch in Northern California, with her husband, Bill Niman, and their two sons.

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