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Righteous Porkchop: Vegetarian Rancher Explains How to Raise Animals the Right Way and the Ills of Factory Farms

Nicolette Hahn Niman's new book offers a much-needed addition to the debate about whether we should be eating meat.
 
 
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It's not easy to debate the nuances of eating meat with vegans or dedicated carnivores, who tend to see the issue in black or white terms -- either you do or you don't eat it. Most of us lie somewhere in between, and for those of us who are trying to change our habits, there's the approach of eating less that could come from animals raised more humanely and in more environmentally responsible ways than we've come to expect from industrial agriculture.

That's where Nicolette Hahn Niman comes in. In her new book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, she describes the work she did as an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., which has led the fight in taking on factory farms or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) for their horrendous environmental impacts, particularly on waterways.

In the book Niman describes, not just what she uncovered about the environmental abuses from CAFOs, but also the miserable labor practices in the facilities, the torturous conditions that confined animals endure, and the health risks posed to those who eat the meat, live nearby or work in the places where the animals are raised.

But Niman's book is not just a Jeremy Rifkin-style expose on the meat industry; it also offers another scenario to consider. After years of working on these issues as an East Coast vegetarian lawyer she ends up moving to California and marrying Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch Inc., which paved a new path for "natural meat" production that veered sharply from the factory farm model. Her book discusses the problems with factory farms and the solutions being offered by farmers and ranchers who have returned to more traditional ways of raising animals for meat and dairy. Part personal narrative and part investigative journalism, Righteous Porkchop is a much-needed addition to the conversation about what should be on our plates these days. We recently spoke by phone and she told AlterNet why she and Bill decided to part ways with Niman Ranch, how to find meat and dairy products that haven't come from factory farms, why "local" may not be the most important designation when it comes to meat, and why wild fish populations are at risk because of CAFOs.

Tara Lohan: Since you and Bill separated from Niman Ranch Inc., what do you think of the way the company is being run now -- are you still supporters of their work?

Nicolette Hahn Niman: Bill really truly is a passionate perfectionist. He was unhappy with some changes that new management made to the beef protocols. The lamb and the pork are the same as they ever were. I can say unequivocally that we are very supportive of what is happening with the pork and the lamb. The beef is probably very similar now to what is happening with other natural beef companies, it is certainly no worse. What Bill was insisting on the whole time he was there were protocols that were stricter than those of other natural beef companies. Bill had established incredibly high standards, and those were changed. We are no longer endorsers of the beef but I don't believe it is worse than other natural beef companies. Also, we are very supportive of the model of having a collective of traditional farmers and ranchers working together. I really think that Niman Ranch is a great example of getting food from traditional farms to ordinary consumers. To get what we are advocating for to become mainstream, you have to have groups of farmers coming together. Niman Ranch is a good model for that.