Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms by Nicolette Hahn Niman

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 336 pages
· Publisher: William Morrow, 2009
· Price: $23.99
· ISBN-10: 0061466492
· ISBN-13: 978-0061466496

For many years, I thought I had been doing the right thing, eating the right foods and watching out for my health. I thought I was an environmentalist, caring about the preservation and good stewardship of the natural world we live in.

Holy cow, was I wrong.

Some time ago, I was reading another good book about human behavior, and what is required for us to behave against our own values. Compartmentalization was a concept I came to understand is absolutely necessary for most of us to act in ways that are not in accordance to our own values. To do wrong, we must push out of our awareness the realization of consequences to our actions. We must stuff things into a locked away place and live in denial.

Picture the mind as a house with many rooms, each with a door. Well, there was this room in my mind … and it had a door, and I had firmly closed it. Inside that room was a vague realization that animal abuse was happening in order to put food on my plate. Gee, I love that steak, that juicy burger, that slab of bacon! Did I really want to know how it got there?

Now I know. The door to that room is wide open, and I have no intention of closing it again. Once most of us are aware, most of us do change our behavior. Most of us, when you get down to it, are pretty nice people. Most of us want to do the right thing and we love our pets, we love the natural world around us, and we care to preserve it.

So how is it that our supermarkets are filled with food produced in food factories, by an industrialized form of agriculture that is fast ruining our environment and obliterating a type of lifestyle many of us find admirable? How is it that we tolerate the cruelest forms of animal abuse imaginable? And consider this: we don’t have to. We can still enjoy that steak, sizzle that bacon, and chow down on that juicy burger. Yes, we can have our delicious porkchop and eat it, too.

The person breaking down my denial door is author Nicolette Hahn Niman. Assigned to write a story about food production and food activism for the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine, I introduced myself to Nicolette when she (an alumnae) visited the college campus. She was talking to a rapt audience about her new book, Righteous Porkchop. Slides illustrating her experiences as a food activist working for Bobby Kennedy, Jr. added images to her words, and I’m pretty sure I could hear doors flying open throughout that room.

Niman had grown up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, majored in biology at Kalamazoo College, and had been raised in a family that shopped for local foods before it was something of a fad (a good one) to do so. By the time she was an adult, she was a vegetarian, and she considered herself pretty safe in thinking she was not participating in livestock abuse. But wait. She was still enjoying dairy products. She was still eating eggs and cheese. She still had an occasional meal of fish.

And me? I’ve been eating skinless chicken breasts that I purchased at the supermarket in frozen bags, along with salmon fillets, and only the occasional chunk of red meat. That’s good, right?


Niman’s wake up call was when she heard Bobby Kennedy, Jr. speak in Kalamazoo. That talk led to a meeting that led to a job offer. Nicolette was offered a job to work for Kennedy as a food activist. She would have to know a lot about pigs and a lot about, well, pig poop. Dream job? Turns out, it was. Nicolette had some political savvy already, having served as a city commissioner in Kalamazoo, but now she was traveling the country investigating industrialized food production.

In his foreword to Niman’s book, Kennedy writes: “The waste from hog factories is prodigious. A hog facility with 100,000 animals can produce the same amount of fecal waste as a city of one million people… Waste from these factories can contain a witch’s brew of nearly 400 dangerous substances—including heavy metals, antibiotics, biocides, chemical disinfectants, pesticides and disease-causing viruses and microbes.”

A necessary evil? You may be thinking … jobs in a lousy economy, maybe?

Kennedy writes: “Each pig factory puts family farmers out of business, replacing high-quality agricultural jobs with hourly-wage workers in degrading positions that are among the lowest paid and most dangerous in the United States. Because the animals are fed and watered by computer and are given almost no husbandry, as few as two workers may tend an operation with ten thousand pigs. Conditions are so miserable that employees seldom endure these jobs for more than a few months. Major slaughterhouses, including those owned by Smithfield, typically have a 100 percent annual employee turnover rate.”

But surely that nagging global problem of hunger?

Niman writes: “Global food production has actually outpaced population growth. Every year the world produces enough wheat, rice, and other grains to provide 4.3 pounds of food per person per day (including two and a half pounds of grain, beans, and nuts, a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly a pound of meat, milk, and eggs.) Moreover, in the last four decades, per capita food production has grown 16 percent faster than the world’s population, meaning there is now more food per person available on the planet than ever before in history. Clearly, abundance is not an issue.”

I’m hearing a chorus of belches at the buffet table by now, but it is coming from only one side of the table. Niman is right. We have only to look around at our epidemic of obesity to realize the table has a shorter leg on one side, all the food sliding into one set of mouths at one end of the table, while the other end is left high and dry. It is not about abundance; it is about distribution. Hunger is about poverty. If people have the resources and the means with which to purchase or grow their own food, they will not go hungry. This call is to focus our efforts where they belong—on eliminating poverty.

So let’s get back to what are the real issues at hand: the ills of industrialized food production. And I choose the word “ill” with multiple purpose. To read Niman’s account, the results of her nationwide research, in-person visits to food factories and feedlots and slaughterhouses is enough to make you ill. And it should. And it does. Because the abusive conditions of these great numbers of confined animals, purposefully (and don’t doubt that purpose, just think “out of sight, out of mind”) kept behind closed doors where most of us will never see what is really going on, is also making the animals ill. Living creatures, no matter what kind, need a few basics to survive and thrive: fresh air, exercise, good food. Subtract all of these, as industrialized food production does, and you have to substitute growth hormones, antibiotics, tranquilizers, steroids, and a host of other drugs just to keep these animals alive.

I stopped eating veal decades ago. All it took was seeing one photograph. That photograph appeared in Time magazine, and I can see it vividly in my mind still. It is a black and white photograph of a tiny newborn calf, standing wobbly and great-eyed in a wooden crate which prevented any and all movement. That crate prevents movement because people like tender meat. That is, meat without muscle. Get the picture? To prevent any movement that might develop muscle, that baby animal is crated for all its living days so that you can eat a tender piece of veal.

I was an easy convert. I already had one foot in the crate, or out of it. But Niman’s book led me into the immense metal barracks that hold battery cages of thousands upon thousands of chickens, the cages that hold pigs until they start to wave their heads back and forth and chew the air in what are visible signs of an animal going mad. Niman took me into the feedlot and the slaughterhouse, to realize that a disturbing number of animals are actually dismembered and gutted while still alive and fully conscious. Niman made me understand that we so little value the life of the chicken that after one year of holding these hens, their beaks cut off to prevent pecking each other out of stress, in cages so small that they cannot even turn around, that once they are considered “layed out,” they are sucked up into immense vacuums and dumped into bins with rotor blades to chop them up into mincemeat. Mind you, still alive. It's enough to make me put that drumstick down.

And this is necessary …. why?

Which is Niman’s point. It is not only not necessary, it is, in fact, detrimental. This kind of food production is detrimental to animals, detrimental to human beings, detrimental to the environment. Wastes from confined animals end up in lagoons of liquefied manure that are often pumped into our water sources or allowed to seep into soil (the author writes about her helicopter adventures flying over these lagoons as food factory workers illegaly flush them into nearby rivers).

If you thought manure was a terrific fertilizer, you are right. But not in these incredible quantities. On traditional farms—those that we still try to sell to our children while singing ditties about Ol’ MacDonald had a farm—manure happens naturally, in quantities that can be used in soil to grow crops, and with the addition of sunshine, killing harmful bacteria. There’s a whole process there that works beautifully before we start super-sizing it and messing with it.

Instead, we have Mad Cow disease, and microbes flowing into streams and rivers and lakes. We have salmonella. We have noxious gasses that have been increasingly connected to a long list of ailments in anyone unlucky enough to live anywhere in the vicinity of modern agriculture. We have a growing mountain of evidence that industrialized farming is responsible for more climate-changing pollution than the auto industry and the cars we drive. Add to that statistics showing that Americans are throwing away more than half the food we produce in this country, and you can see that this is a recipe for disaster.

Just when I want to go screaming down that hall of suddenly open doors that have revealed to me the horrors of food factories, however, Niman lets some sunshine in the window. Yes, there is a better way. And we begin to understand that “progress” is not always foreword movement. Sometimes it is regression. Sometimes we have to go back to that place in the road where we took the wrong fork.

Traditional farming had it right all along. While there is always room for improvement, farming in a manner that raises animals in a humane and healthy manner produces better quality food. In other words, if you don’t give a hoot about the pig, consider all that flavor and nutrition you and your family are missing. Niman takes us from the feedlot into the gourmet kitchen, where chefs across the country are discovering—or rediscovering, if you will—that foods coming from traditional farms taste a lot better.

Our palettes have become desensitized, but once you taste the difference between meat that comes from an animal that has been grazing on grass and eating healthy foods (you don’t even want to know how much animal poop is being used as feed for other animals, but you should know, because you are the next animal in line), you won’t want to go back. Ever tasted a greenhouse tomato and then taken a bite out of vine-ripened tomato? Then you have an idea what this food adventure is all about. It’s a flavor explosion. (Yes, I've been on a food adventure of my own since reading this book, and it's been truly delicious. I had no idea what I was missing.)

Niman’s book is unnerving. It pounds sense into our compartmentalized brains. Every lie we have come to believe about food is gutted. The author shows us what is going on behind all those closed doors and hidden-away buildings. She gives practical advice about how to shop organic, and what the labels mean and don’t mean. "Natural" is often anything but. "Organic," well, usually. "Open-range" can mean the door is left open for a while on the food factory, or that a chicken foot may have touched cement for a moment, but not earth. This is an exposé, and she encourages voting with your fork.

Personally, I don’t think I have ever encountered an easier crusade to join. It just tastes so darn good. The laws are mostly already in place, Niman writes. It is just a matter of insisting our legislators enforce them. Government subsidies are supporting food factories and helping to destroy traditional farms. Get the government out of the way, and organic food will be a lot more reasonable in price. It’s a movement to reclaim our good health, live in a sustainable manner on our good earth, and simply to do the right thing with respect to all living beings.

Still not enough for you? Okay, fine. Niman also tells a terrific love story. Ever heard of a vegetarian who falls in love with a cattle rancher? Nicolette Hahn Niman is the wife of nationally respected cattle rancher Bill Niman, formerly of Niman Ranch (you may see that on your menu at quality restaurants). The two (plus young son Miles) are now living on a cattle ranch in California, raising beef cattle and heritage turkeys.

There you have it. A delicious cause that will make you feel good, and right with the world, when you sit down to dinner. A love story with a happy ending. A well-written and interesting read that has just enough facts and figures to put it on solid ground, but not so dry that you won’t want to turn the page. My pages kept zipping by. A horror story that will keep you up nights, too, and should … but it is one you can change. Start with this important book—and start voting with your fork.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet Winter 2009-2010 Issue

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