Feb 22 2010

Book Review: Notes on ‘Righteous’ Eating

I just finished reading Nicolette Hahn Niman’s Righteous Porkchop.  Part textbook and part memoir, the book proved to be highly informative and incredibly personal.  Over the course of the book, Niman’s basic interests in animal rights, specifically from a legal standpoint, become intertwined with her personal life.  Righteous Porkchop read like two different books.  Part 1 explored her initial foray into the Hog Industry and industrial agriculture after she joined Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s Waterkeeper Alliance.  Part 2 takes place after her marriage to Rancher Bill Niman and consisted of an exploration of the cattle industrial and big agriculture.

On first glance, summarizing a book related to factory farming isn’t really a ‘cheery observation’.  However, successful journalism should be lauded and Niman’s thoroughly researched book serves as influential reading on animal husbandry and how to move beyond factory farming. It’s critical that supporters of the local food movement are aware of how the majority of animals are raised in our country.

As partially expected, Niman talked about similar issues (and even farmers) that Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Pollan have written about. Omnivore or vegetarian, the messages are the same:  there needs to be a return to pastoral farming and an emphasis on animal welfare, moderation, and accountability.  Each subsequent book about food and animal treatment that I read leaves me with an even greater (though horrifying) understanding of industrial agriculture.  I continue to be motivated to support family farms and humane animal treatment;  I resolve to always ask questions, look beyond the initial label, and see the bigger picture.

In Foer’s Eating Animals, Niman wrote a chapter where she stated:

“Because we’re taking their lives for food, I believe we owe our animals the highest level of existence.  They deserve to experience joy.  For me, factory farming is wrong not because it produces meat, but because it robs every animal of every shred of happiness.  Being a vegetarian does not relieve me from a responsibility for how our nation raises animals.”

What follows is a summary of information that I found helpful, divided by category.

A Brief Overview:  What Spurred the Rise of Factory Farms?

The rise of factory farm chickens started with an incubator:  one machine with the ability to hatch 52,000 chicks at once.  The consequences: Both chicken mothering instincts AND male chicks were no longer needed (male chicks are simply thrown out).

The incubator led to thousands of chicks and chickens crowded together in tight, indoor spaces.  Drugs were needed to keep the animals ‘healthy’ and so Ren-O-Sal was created and began to be added to the chickens’ daily.  The chickens collectively lost their appetites and so it became common practice to add arsenic, a powerful appetite stimulant, to feed.

During World War II, producing as much chicken as possible was deemed a patriotic act (everyone was expected to produce as much as possible).  This led to rapid expansion of chicken farming in the Delmarva Peninsula.

During the Great Depression, Roosevelt instated crop support and production control.  Following World War II, controls on production were eliminated and crop values exceeded support prices.

Finally, a man named Jesse Jewell completed the final phase of industrialization (for poultry).  Fully supported by the USDA, Jewell created vertical integration in the animal farming world:  he supplied the birds and feed and contracted farmers to supply the land, building, and labor.  Jewell also recycled slaughterhouse wastes as chicken feed.

Industrial animal operations have gained market advantages and lowered their costs by exerting political and economic power.

  • They control livestock prices by owning the majority of our nation’s slaughtering capacity.  Individual farmers are unable to get their meat slaughtered unless they enter into contracts with large meat companies, forcing them to move out of the free market.
  • Agribusiness avoids paying the true cost of animal production.  They frequently avoid following environmental laws or adhering to regulations.
  • Industrial agriculture receives significant public subsidies. 84% of Federal Farm Subsides go to the largest 1/5 of farms (farmers growing commodity crops).

Hogs: North Carolina and Beyond

By the mid 1990s, North Carolina’s pork industry had grown so rapidly that everyone (advocates, farmers, regulators) was confused about how this had happened.  Determined to find out more, North Carolina's The News and Observer performed an intense and detailed investigation, ultimately winning a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism.

The News and Observer uncovered many answers:

  • The pork industry has corrupted NC politicians.
  • It is now illegal to photograph factory farms.
  • The pork industry prohibits the publication of any studies regarding health threats related to the pork industry.

You can read the entire ‘Hog Series’ here.

Pigs obviously excrete a great deal of waste.  At factory farms, this waste is put into giant manure lagoons, full of hydrogen sulfide (H2S).  A concentration of only 50 parts per million can cause dizziness, nausea, headache.  A concentration of 1,000 parts:  death from respiratory paralysis.  As much as 80% of nitrogen in manure lagoons end up in the air as ammonia.  The EPA has estimated that hog operations emit 70,000 tons of hydrogen sulfide gas every year.

According to Niman, multiple factors have led to North Carolina becoming the ‘China’ of pig farming:

  • Non existent environmental enforcement
  • Cheap land
  • Low wages
  • Non-unionized labor
  • Subsidized grain
  • Mechanized methods


Cattle and other grazing animals co-evolved with grasslands, making them essential to the grasslands maintenance.  When grazers are removed, grasses lose their competitive advantage and shrubs quickly form.  Maintaining pasture and grasslands benefits the environment:  90% of grass is below ground, preventing erosion by binding the soil.

Niman has legitimate concens with standard modern beef production (read:  feedlots):

  • Inappropriate cattle feed
  • Drug abuse
  • Concentration of too many cattle

Historically, raising cows on grass had been cost effective.  When grain subsidies entered the scene, in conjunction with rising costs of real estate, this was no longer the case.  In the early 20th century, young cattle were still being grown to full maturity on grass (3-4 years) and only then put in feedlots for fattening.  Now, 6 month calves are put feedlots for raising and fattening.

The US has banned the use of growth hormones in poultry and pork, but not in beef.

In addition, even though cattle are herbivores, the USDA still allows cattle to be fed meat.

Did you know that virtually all veal comes from male dairy calves?   Dairy cows have to have a calf every year to keep their milk flowing.  Male dairy calves have three options.

1)    Become ‘Bob Veal’:  go to the slaughterhouse when they’re 2 days old

2)    Stay in crates for awhile before going to the slaughterhouse

3)    Get moved to feedlots and be raised as beef

Important things to know about Fish

In 2007, half of the seafood consumed in the world came from fish farms.  While fish farming is touted as offsetting the depletion of fisheries (Niman says there is ‘some truth’ to this), fish farming can damage aquatic ecosystems and consume more fish than it produces (through feeding its farmed fish numerous other types of fish).

Fish Farming is directly connected with industrial animal production:

1)    Fish are used as feed

2)    Several types of waste from industrial animals facilities are fed back to farmed fish (creating a potential link to avian flu-migratory birds).

In the US, 80% of total fish and shellfish (90% shrimp) come from outside the US.  China is largest supplier of seafood to the US (Thailand for shrimp).  Both China and Thailand have lax standards for farmed fish and use chemicals to keep the fish and shrimp alive.

Farmed Salmon have been found to contained elevated levels of toxin, due to the contaminants in their food.  In addition, salmon are fed red dye, because they are unable to eat the pink colored krill that they’d eat in the wild.

Things to Remember:

  • Choose wild and pole caught fish
  • Avoid buying imported seafood unless the seafood is from Canada or EU:  there are no regulations on drugs or chemicals in other countries
  • Seafood Buying Guides:  Monterey Bay Aquarium, EcoFish, Clean Fish

Other Information

The Certified Humane Label:  This label is designed for big agribusiness.  A farm can be deemed as ‘humane’ with minimal effort.  The label doesn’t ban metal crates for sows, doesn’t require access to the outdoors, and allows liquefied manure systems.  The label is paid for on a per-animal basis by the very operations being certified!  Because the program heavily relies on revenue from the animal operations, how can it be objective?!

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA): A far superior program and label.  AWA can only be applied to non-industrialized farms, as these are the only farms that can be truly humane.

Avoid the word ‘natural’: According to the USDA, natural=”minimally processed”.  Smithfield has this label.

In Righteous Porkchop, Niman states that the USDA acts as if food industrialization is merely economic Darwinism—inevitable.  She loudly proclaims this to be a myth, citing that it is less expensive to raise pigs outdoors and that grazing dairies produce milk at a lower cost than confinement dairies.

What about the argument: ‘Industrial Agriculture is Needed to Feed the World’?

Niman angrily asserts that this argument tries to turn the moral equation around. She has never seen a shred of proof that industrial meat is feeding the world’s malnourished.  In actuality, more resources are required to produce human food from animals than from plants.  There are also specific links between hunger and industrial animal production, such as small farmers losing their land to big agriculture and thus succumbing to poverty.

According to Marion Nestle, the greatest unspoken secret of US food system is overabundance:  global food production has outpaced population growth. Every year the world produces enough food to provide 4.3 pounds of food per person per day.

Useful Books to Read

Gail Eisnitz:  Slaughterhouse

Charles Clover: The End of the Line