Book Review: Righteous Porkchop

Book Review: Righteous Porkchop

Oct 02

Changing your diet for the sake of the animals may seem like a quaintly liberal, faintly extreme thing to do, even to those who normally tend toward a naturalistic worldview. For some, it’s right up there with free love, nature-worshiping, and communal living. If there’s any book that will open your mind and direct you to the more practical and quantifiable effects of large-scale animal production, though, it’s Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, by Nicolette Hahn Niman.

As a business lawyer who majored in biology in college, the environmentally-minded author took a job as a prosecuting attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a young organization championed by Robert F. Kennedy. He personally tasked her with waging legal war against factory hog farms for polluting land and waterways. The first half of Righteous Porkchop chronicles her research on the history of factory farming and the current state of the industry, combining both academic research (books and internet) and first-hand accounts of her visits to various facilities.

As a lawyer, Hahn Niman’s writing style is sometimes dry and often overloaded with information, invoking the dazed stupor commonly seen in students cramming for an exam. Certainly, it’s a book best read piecemeal. However, from an academic point of view, Righteous Porkchop is an invaluable store of source material, statistics and startling facts about the damaging effects of our country’s current method of raising animals. (I briefly returned to college as I read this book, making notes on a legal pad to myself like “look this up” and “how is this possible,” paraphrasing good quotes, and jotting down related topics to research.)

The second half of the book documents Hahn Niman’s life after Waterkeeper. As a long-time vegetarian she surprises even herself by marrying a prominent cattle rancher (Bill Niman of Niman Ranch) who adheres to strict standards (pretty much the antithesis of factory farming) and helps farmers around the country distribute their naturally raised meat. With such a successful husband, Hahn Niman retires from the office and instead begins writing and learning how to raise cattle. This half of the book is much easier to read and is dedicated to the ways in which people can act against the atrocities described in the first half. Hahn Niman talks about the kind of farmers and ranchers Laura and I are now trying to support and details steps her readers can take to support them.

She takes it beyond the book, in fact, making this useful information available to all on her website, Righteous Porkchop, where she also maintains a blog about her current life (as opposed to her previous life as a lawyer).

Here are a few things I picked up from Nicolette Hahn Niman’s book:

  • Industrial animal operations generate tons (literally) of organic waste. They dispose of it by storing it in manure “lagoons,” huge ponds filled with liquefied waste stagnating and releasing methane and nitrogen into the air, where it makes its way to nearby surface water.s
  • Manure that is left in solid form, either in a pasture or in a compost pile, hosts microbes that destroy harmful pathogens and break down concentrated nitrogen, making it safe and ideal fertilizer. These microbes can’t live in a liquid environment, so these industrial “lagoons” are basically preserving everything harmful about animal waste.
  • Chickens regularly receive food with red dye in it to boost the color of their egg yolks, because chickens raised in cages have dull or grayish yolks. (They also have fewer Omega-3 fatty acids.)
  • In 1909, Americans ate an average of ten pounds of chicken per year. In 2005, each person ate an average of 60 pounds per year. Surprisingly, consumption of other foods hasn’t dropped proportionally, which explains our obesity epidemic.
  • “Battling factory farms is a fight for people wanting to enjoy the sanctity of their family homes, for protection of lands, waters, and air, for citizens’ rights to govern themselves, and, perhaps most of all, for billions of farm animals who never know a moment of joy.”
  • In the early 1940′s, Dr. Walter Goldschmidt conducted thorough research showing that “traditional farming contributes to vigorous citizen participation, good schools, low crime, physically healthy populations, and a high quality of life. Industrial agriculture, however, has the opposite effect in every category.” The USDA, who commissioned the study, shelved it and refused to publish it after some large agribusiness companies complained about what the findings might do to their profits.

There is much, much more (our government still subsidizes agricultural commodities based on policies created during the Great Depression!), but you will have to read for yourself, or ask me about it sometime.

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