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Nicollete Hahn Niman Review

Nicolette Hahn Niman at Niman Ranch in Bolinas, California. (Photograph by Mitch Tobias)

In opposition with much of the current talk about how to mitigate diet related disease, soil degradation, and climate change, Nicolette Hahn Niman is defending beef. A K grad, class of ’89, she returned to campus last Monday to make her case in Stetson Chapel.

In her new book, Defending Beef, Hahn Niman complicates the tendency of to vilify beef. She argues that, with the right practices, raising cattle can help build carbon-sequestering soils, increase biodiversity, prevent erosion, and provide a nutritious food source.

Professor Amelia Katanski introduced Hahn Niman, remembering her as a fervent debater in the Political Science class they took together at K. Through her presentation, Hahn Niman hoped listeners would be able to “rethink things we think we already know.”

She advocates for methods of cattle ranching similar to those she uses on her roughly 1,000-acre ranch in Marin County, California; “Our cattle are never fed grains and live their life year-round on grass…We do no plowing, no planting, no chemical applications to our land, and no irrigation,” she writes in Defending Beef. She references ecologist Allan Savory who advocates “that animals be kept in dense herds and moved often; that grazing simulates biological break in the soil surface, press in seeds, and push down dead plant matter…that all of this generates soil carbon, plant carbon, and water retention; and that this is the only way to stop and reverse desertification the world over.”

Before her presentation in Stetson, Amy Newday’s Slow Farming Senior Capstone class had the opportunity to eat dinner with Hahn Niman. She asked about our post-grad plans and listened intensely, bright blue eyes narrowed, nodding her head of auburn hair pulled back in a silver barrette. She then shared a bit about her life after K. A French and Biology double major, Hahn Niman moved to France to teach English after graduation. She earned her law degree from the University of Michigan in 1993 and went on to become an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. Much of the experience she sites in her book comes from her years as a senior attorney for Robert f. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was responsible for the concentrated livestock reform campaign.

Class member Annie Gough asked a seemingly simple question; how old are the cows when they go to slaughter? Hahn Niman clarified – by cows Annie probably meant cattle? She went on to explain that what we classify as ‘beef’ should be the meat of heifers (a female that hasn’t had a calf) and steers (castrated males). ‘Cow’ actually describes a female mother. Hahn Niman noted that the meat of these animals is typically used in ground beef or a cheap steak at restaurants like Ponderosa, after they put in eight or nine years providing milk. She gestured widely, the rolled up sleeves of her charcoal sweater revealing the tanned and beefy forearms of a farmer.

“Language is important! Clarity is important!” she said, banging her had on the table, rattling the cutlery.

In her book, she strived to “Present very very complicated ideas, but not dumb them down,” she said. She dedicates an entire section to soil, examining microscopic specifics. She describes how glomalin, a glue-like, carbon-based molecule, is essential in transferring nutrients from the soil to the plant, and carbon from the plant to the soil. Glomalin also catalyzes the formation of soil aggregates – key to soil health and carbon sequestration.

“My whole purpose in writing this book was to respond to oversimplification,” she said.

“It was convincing,” senior Laura Manardo said, “As soon as I finished this book I went and got a burger.” Hahn Niman herself actually doesn’t eat meat. She’s been vegetarian since her college years and told curious student Lucy Mailing that she just doesn’t have the urge to eat meat.

This and her personal ties and investments in the beef industry feeds skepticism of Hahn Niman, but she comes armed with data. I read the book, critical of the context, but appreciative of the efforts she makes to thoroughly complicate incredibly complex and often simplified ideas about the implications of raising and consuming beef.

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Nicollete Hahn Niman Review