Is Meat Bad for the Environment?

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Photo by thebittenword.com/Flickr CC


Chefs and farmers gathered recently in Chicago to exchange ideas about making the food system healthier and more environmentally sustainable. The summit was hosted by Chefs Collaborative, a Boston-based non-profit (of which Nicolette is a board member). Panels and workshops ranged from butchering whole hogs to food production's role in global warming.

Nicolette led a discussion focused on meat. Because there seems to be a growing perception that meat is inherently bad for the environment, she posed the question: Can meat be part of a sustainable food system? She led off with her own answer, an emphatic "YES!" It all depends on how and where animals are raised, and how meat is used. "Environmentally beneficial farming mimics natural ecosystems," she said. "Healthy ecosystems involve plants and animals functioning together."

Sustainable cooking means using meat that was raised using traditional methods and cutting back on portion sizes. "Eat less meat. Eat better meat."

Moreover, environmental statistics about meat production are often misunderstood. Take global warming. Because the greatest portion of meat's global warming contribution comes from deforestation in Latin America, India, and Asia, domestically-produced meat is unconnected to those emissions. Additionally, livestock raised without being fed fertilized crops are unrelated to another large part of the global warming equation: fossil fuel-based agricultural chemicals.

Nicolette also suggested that some animals are more easily raised in an environmentally benign way. Goats, for instance, can be raised entirely on naturally-occurring vegetation. Even better, goats prefer to eat woody brush that other grazing animals don't like. Thus, a cattle ranch can raise goats and cattle on the same pastures, making more efficient use of the land and naturally occurring vegetation.

She also urged that sustainable cooking means using meat that was raised using traditional methods and cutting back on portion sizes. "Eat less meat. Eat better meat," she encouraged.

Tony Maws, chef and owner of the Cambridge, MA restaurant Craigie on Main, and Matt McMillin, inventor of the big bowl concept, added the chef's perspective to the discussion. Tony talked about cooking with the whole animal, which makes it possible to purchase directly from smaller farms and puts every part of the animal-from nose to tail-to good use. Tony said that he and his sous chefs spend much of their time honing their butchering skills.

As a consultant to restaurants and former partner in the restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You, Matt has spent much of his career helping restaurants make their menus, especially their meat, more environmentally friendly. Greening menus will not succeed without a commitment to "telling the story," Matt said. "Educating the front of the house is absolutely essentially," he emphasized.

The panel was rounded out by Will Harris, a fourth-generation cattle farmer from Georgia. Will Harris described his own transformation from commodity beef producer into grass-fed organic farmer. Meat from his farm costs more now, he explained, because he no longer relies on the short-cuts of hormones and antibiotic feeding.

The meat session's lively dialogue was typical of the Chefs Collaborative conference, which was infused with a palpable enthusiasm. It was a heartening to know that chefs are returning to their communities energized with new ideas and inspiration for sustainability. The Chefs Collaborative board has decided to make the summit an annual event.

Presented by

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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