Monday, May 17, 2010

Voting with your fork -- Review of "Righteous Porkchop" by Nicolette Hahn Niman

"Are you trying to convert us?" asked one of my daughters after reading my recent posts on vegetarianism. Not to vegetarianism, I emailed back - just to mindful eating.

I like Michael Pollan's creed : "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

I also like Nicolette Hahn Niman's advice at the end of her 2009 book, Righteous Porkchop:
Do not thoughtlessly eat foods from animals. Know the source. Question the methods. There is great power in posing the following simple question to grocery stores, restaurants and farmers: “How was this raised?” Then shift your buying toward those meats, fish, eggs, and dairy products that come from animals raised in a way that you like.... It’s voting with your fork.
Voting with your fork seems like such a pathetically tiny response to the worldwide scourge of factory farms, which Niman describes in heartbreaking detail : Ecological devastation, such as the 1995 lagoon break that spilled “more than twenty-five million gallons of liquefied hog manure into the New River (more than twice the volume of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez).” Increased poverty in areas where agribusiness, with the help of public subsidies, tax exemptions, and favored treatment, has driven small farmers off the land. Endangered public health from antiobiotic-resistant infections and poisoned air and water. And, of course, unspeakable cruelty to animals who never see the sun, eat manure-rich feed, and are dismembered while still alive.

Model farms
Fortunately, in Righteous Porkchop Niman goes well beyond exposing the evils of factory farming. As her delightful title suggests, a small but rapidly growing movement is challenging industrial food production - not only by throwing well-deserved stones, but also by modeling animal husbandry as it should be practiced. Just as Pollan praises Joel Salatin's Virginia chicken farm in The Omnivore's Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer extols Frank Reese's Kansas turkey farm in Eating Animals, Niman writes glowingly about farmers who treat their animals and the environment with respect: the Klessig family, who own a Wisconsin dairy farm, for example, and Rob and Michelle Stokes, who raise goats in Oregon.

Niman herself is now a rancher. Formerly a senior attorney with Robert Kennedy Jr.'s environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, she married Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman in 2003 and got personally involved with raising cattle, an odd vocation for a woman who has been a vegetarian since college. Ms. Niman, however, is by no means opposed to righteous porkchops. Having learned that milk cows and egg-laying hens are kept in conditions as abysmal as their meat-animal cousins, she "simply couldn't continue consuming eggs and dairy products and maintain any sense of moral superiority." All foods of animal origin can be farmed cruelly or responsibly. Those who eat such foods can ignore the problems - or they can vote for change with their forks.

But does voting with my fork do any good? What is one person against the Goliath agribusiness?

Change in the air
The thing is, it isn't just one person. It isn't even just a few activists or extremists. Michael Pollan's books regularly hit the best-seller lists. David Kirby's new book, Animal Factory, is getting rave reviews (watch this interview on the Fox Business channel). Movies like King Corn and Food Inc. are making the rounds. Farmers' markets have never been more popular.

Businesses are listening. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods markets are springing up everywhere, and major supermarkets are adding an abundance of organic products.

Policies are changing, too. “To qualify as ‘organic,’ dairies have not been required by USDA to truly keep their cows on pasture,” Niman wrote last year. Beginning next month, this will no longer be true. According to a February 12 New York Times article, Department of Agriculture rules go into effect in June requiring that dairy cows be allowed to "graze on pasture for the full length of the local grazing season. The season will be determined by local conditions and agriculture authorities, like organic certifiers or county conservation officials, not by the dairy alone. While the grazing season must last at least 120 days, in many areas it will be much longer."

In the meantime
Meanwhile, of course, factory farms flourish, and their public relations and marketing departments work overtime to persuade the public that their approach is ethical, healthful, and necessary. One of Niman's best chapters, "Answering Obstacles to Reform," no doubt has its roots in the legal battles she waged - and won - against industrial agriculturalists when she worked for Waterkeeper. Read it whenever you're tempted to believe that large operations are more efficient than small ones, or that industrially raised meat is necessary in order to feed the world.

And whenever you think it's just too hard to save the world one fork at a time, read the preceding chapter, "Finding the Right Foods." Even though interest in responsibly farmed food is growing, it can still be difficult to find 100% grass-fed beef, or milk from cows who graze in pastures, or eggs from hens who breathe fresh air. Niman offer many pointers and websites to make the search less daunting.

Righteous Porkchop covers a lot of ground. It's a memoir and an exposé, a call to action and a buying guide, a good read packed with information. If I'd been Niman's editor, I might have tried to get her to narrow her focus and smooth out her style  - but I might have been wrong. She's not as well-organized as Pollan or as literary as Safran Foer, but she makes an excellent case. She's going to convert a lot of us.

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