Can You Be an Environmentalist and Still Eat Meat?
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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?”