Nicolette Hahn Niman was an environmental lawyer who became a cattle rancher, and didn’t eat meat for 33 years. For both the ecosystem and human health, she argues, it’s how animals are farmed that matters
A fter refusing to eat meat for 33 years, Nicolette Hahn Niman bit tentatively into a beefburger two years ago. She had become a vegetarian because she was concerned about animal welfare and the environmental cost of meat. Unlike most vegetarians, she had experience of the dire conditions on factory farms during her career as an environmental lawyer campaigning against pollution caused by industrial meat production in the US. Then she married a farmer.
Hahn Niman’s journey from vegetarian activist to cattle rancher to writing a book called Defending Beef may be driven by love, but it is also informed by a lawyerly desire to stick up for small farmers besieged by the growing ethical and environmental clamour against meat. The burger turned out to be an unexpectedly delicious brief pleasure, but it was the 18 years working on the ranch alongside the man who grilled it – and raised the cow – her husband, Bill Niman, that inspired her.
Hahn Niman was raised in semi-rural Michigan and was working in New York as an environmental lawyer for Robert F Kennedy Jr when she fell in love with a farmer. Kennedy Jr’s charity, Waterkeeper Alliance, was seeking to stop livestock farmers from polluting water bodies with slurry, and Hahn Niman began working with farmers who were doing the right thing, including her future husband. When the couple met for coffee in Central Park, “I just realised, wow, this is a really handsome man, in addition to his work that I admire,” she says, on a video call from her farm kitchen. When she moved from New York to the Pacific coast to be with Niman on the rough, arid terrain of his 1,000-acre ranch, she planned to continue as a lawyer.