Politics of the Plate: The Conscientious Carnivore

Can meat be a part of an environmentally sustainable diet?

Republic of Argentina, Buenos Aires—In the cow market of Linares.

If you look at the raw (excuse me) numbers, the answer seems to be an unqualified “NO!”. Livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. A meat eater pumps about 1.5 tons more CO2-equivalent emissions into the atmosphere than someone who scorns meat.

But Nicolette Hahn Niman, an attorney and vegetarian who became something of an accidental rancher when she married Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, offers a more reasonable, if less pat, answer to the question. “It depends on how your meat is raised,” she explains.

Niman, who is author of Righteous Porkchop, an investigative book about industrial-scale livestock farming and sustainable alternatives to it, made her statement last week in Chicago before a meeting of Chefs Collaborative, a group dedicated to local and sustainable foods.

Pointing out that the statistics about livestock production’s contribution to global warming include practices such as raising animals on trucked-in corn in vast feedlots in the United States and clearing rainforests in South America and southern Asia to make way for fields, Niman said, “Sheep, cattle, and goats can be raised on natural vegetation.”

Using her own ranch in Bolinas, CA, as an example, she noted that they apply no chemicals to the fields and use no irrigation. Their animals drink collected rainwater. Manure, which is a noxious pollutant at feedlots, is a precious resource for the Nimans. “We’ve had neighbors ask us if they can have any for their gardens and we say, ‘No, we need it all for our pastures,’” said Niman.

There is a downside: Meat raised this way costs more at the store. To those who grumble about cost, Niman suggests a win/win alternative: Eat less. “We don’t need twenty-four-ounce servings,” she said. “Eating less would make us a lot more healthy.”

The planet, too.

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