Nicolette Hahn Niman is a rancher, author and lawyer from Northern California in the US. We were delighted to welcome her to our conference on Farming and Climate Change where she spoke about the important role livestock can play in sustainable farming systems. Nicolette previously served as senior attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, running their campaign to reform the concentrated production of livestock and poultry. In recent years she has gained a national reputation as an advocate for sustainable food production and improved farm-animal welfare. She is the author of Defending Beef (Chelsea Green, 2014) and Righteous Porkchop (Harper Collins, 2009).

We asked Nicolette to tell us more about her views on the role of livestock, the public understanding of different production methods and we also asked for her thoughts on the EAT-Lancet report.

Does the US public understand the difference between grass-fed and feedlot beef in terms of environmental and human health impacts?

There’s a growing awareness that there are important differences between grass-based farms and feedlots – both in terms of health and environmental consequences. The most important thing for people to understand is that ecologically optimal farming systems mirror natural ecosystems. Animals raised out-of-doors in well managed systems generate more diverse life in the soils, starting at the microscopic level, leading to more plant growth, denser vegetative cover, more plant and animal diversity, more water retention in the soils, more carbon sequestration and on and on. In contrast, taking animals off the land and confining them to feedlots or industrial buildings removes animals from ecosystems – eliminating the ecosystem services they provide – and creates unhealthy conditions for animals and humans, while causing pollution. Most consumers don’t know a great deal about the specifics of these issues, but they sense intuitively that grass-based systems are healthier and more natural, and they are increasingly seeking them out when they shop for groceries. This is a hopeful sign.

How strong is the market for grass-fed livestock?

In the United States, the grass-fed sector of beef is by far the most rapidly expanding, and there has been a rising demand for eggs, dairy and other foods from animals reared on pasture and rangeland. I fully expect these trends to continue because people are making the connection between their food and their health, and between their consumer choices and the health of the planet.

In the UK, the environmental NGO community does not fully understand the importance of ruminants in sustainable agriculture; is this the same in the US?

This has been my greatest passion in recent years: making the case to environmental organisations and environmentally-minded citizens that animals are vital to truly regenerative agriculture. Common sense tells us so. Virtually since the origins of life on this planet, plants, animals and fungi have functioned together. The myriad ways they work together and support each other are only beginning to be understood by humans. To suggest that removing animals from food systems will improve their ecological footprint is immediately suspect because it goes against these basic facts. Moreover, examples from around the world show that the most ecologically vibrant systems are those that include a variety of plant and animals. Complexity, diversity and interrelatedness is inherent in nature and should be foundational for every farm. North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, in his recent book Dirt to Soil, describes his decades-long journey to return ecological health to his farm. Animals, he notes, are essential.

The nutrition community is also deeply divided, with the orthodoxy still advocating a plant-based diet. Once again, is it the same in the US?

The problem, of course, is not fat. But for decades, Americans were told to avoid fat, especially animal fats. Recent research and re-evaluation of earlier studies has revealed that there is little scientific basis for these ideas. Moreover, demographic data in the US shows that as Americans reduced their animal fat consumption in recent decades there has been a steady rise in obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. The fat phobia is starting to fade a bit but remains strong. Rather than worry about fat, I always encourage people to focus on the following: avoid processed foods, reduce sugar, and eat real, whole foods, including plenty of greens, herbs, vegetables and fruits.

Did you study the conclusions of the EAT-Lancet report and what did you think?

I read it and was very disappointed. The authors correctly identified agriculture and food systems as major sources of environmental stresses, as well as sources of unhealthy diets. The great challenge in tackling this crisis is about understanding and building complex, diverse, resilient systems that mirror nature. Instead, the report chose to focus on reducing meat production and consumption, barely mentioning the single most important aspect of regenerative agriculture and the future of food –­ healthy soils.

Photograph: Chloe Edwards Photography

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