Book Review - Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms

By Nicolette Hahn Niman

When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., of New York-based environmental non-profit Waterkeeper Alliance, offered Nicolette Hahn Niman a position as senior attorney and lead organizer on a campaign against factory hog farms, she balked: "I'm not sure I want to work full-time on manure." Despite her initial concerns, Niman was quickly won over by the dedication of the farmers and grassroots activists heading up local campaigns against hog CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) in Missouri and North Carolina. Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms is a thoughtful, and surprisingly lighthearted, memoir about a most serious topic: poop... and the animals that make it. Porkchop guides readers through the ills of industrial farming, the faces and lives of the people most affected by it, a hopeful exploration of sustainable meat production and, surprisingly, a little romance.

While preparing to lead the Waterkeeper campaign and concurrent lawsuit of Smithfield Food - the same agribiz that owns the million-pig CAFO in Mexico most often mentioned as a likely source of the current swine flu circulating the globe - this vegetarian author tasks herself with the job of learning the history and modern-day impact of industrial livestock production. In doing so, Niman comes face to face with hogs in confining metal crates, manure lagoons spewing noxious odors, fish in the process of being eaten alive by contaminated waterways, and an impossibly long and well documented list of transgressions against the Clean Water Act (passed in 1972 and significantly amended in 1977 and 1987). The author poses a very basic question which becomes an underlying theme of her book: "How is it possible that our food is being produced in ways so out of sync with our values, and with none of us realizing it?" In simple black and white, Niman sums up a thought many activists and advocates of sustainable food are challenged to answer.

Our intrepid author ventures to piece together a solution to this fundamental question through an historical investigation of the poultry industry, which served as the model for the eventual consolidation of the hog industry. After a brief yet informative exploration, Niman comes to some weighty conclusions:

My investigation into poultry farming’s transformation had been a revelation in many ways. For one thing, it was now clear to me that the disappearance of the family farm was not the result of some unstoppable natural force like wind wearing down mountains. Industrialization, rather than being inevitable as is often believed, has been aided by public policy and stimulated by individual entrepreneurs looking to maximize profits. Much of this "progress" had occurred at the expense of farmers and animals.

While Niman’s language is subtle, her summation that it was no accident that the family farm has been diminished in the face of consolidated, industrial production is a scathing indictment of farm policy and the businesses that benefit.

Following her poultry primer, Niman traces a similar trajectory in hogs, beef cattle, dairy cows, and fish. Each section contains an overview of the industry, its history, and profiles of the farmers and activists on either side of the fence, along with some gruesome descriptions of the plight of farm animals raised in confinement. The beef section makes a particularly compelling, and somewhat unexpected, argument for the sustainability of beef cattle raised on grass, leading Niman to refer to beef as the "most maligned of meats." Far from being heavy or depressing, this part of the book is interwoven with personal narrative: Waterkeeper’s watershed victory over Smithfield Foods in 2001 ; the author’s decision to leave Waterkeeper; and a quiet romance with cattle rancher Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch.

With a newfound understanding of meat production and the woes of modern manure management, Niman steers the second half of Porkchop beyond a critique of modern industrial systems, to a personable discussion of what modern animal husbandry can be and several models of how farmers are working to bring sustainability and animal welfare to the forefront of their business plans. The book closes with a practical guide to buying meat and animal products in the most sustainable, animal friendly ways possible, from growing your own to finding them in the aisles of the grocery store.

The ability to weave personal narrative into informative prose makes this book an easy page-turner. The most remarkable aspect of this book, however, is Niman’s ability remain objective. While it would have been easy for a vegetarian author to fill page after page with accusations against the farmers involved in industrial agriculture or the entrepreneurs whose business models have resulted in intense pain and suffering for farm animals, Porkchop is never shrill or preachy. It is a conscious choice on the part of the author, an effort to inspire, rather than to demoralize her audience:

Long ago, I lost my taste for eating sanctimoniously and self righteously. But I do believe that we can revolutionize the food system with righteous eating. If you're buying your pork from a farmer raising pigs on pasture, you're well on your way.

Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farmswill leave readers entertained, informed, and ready for the good fight. Perhaps most importantly, this book has the capacity to bind people together in the hopeful belief that our food choices can have a positive effect on the environment and the welfare of farm animals.

- by Laura Edwards-Orr

footnotes