Can You Be a “Good Environmentalist” and Still Eat Meat? Care2 Weighs In On the Lyman vs. Niman Debate

Last week, an event called Lyman vs. Niman brought folks to the David Brower Center in Berkeley, Calif., to watch a debate between Howard Lyman, former cattle rancher and current vegan, and Nicolette Niman, wife of Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman.

The debate focused on the question: Can you be a “good environmentalist” and still eat meat?

Both Lyman and Niman have become outspoken advocates for their causes, as well as authors. Nyman is the co-author of Mad Cowboy and No More Bull, and Niman of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. The books are completely fascinating, and their characters in themselves could insight debate.

Remember when Oprah was sued by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association for saying she’d never eat another hamburger? That was after her interview with Howard Lyman, the “mad cowboy,” discussing mad cow disease. This fourth-generation rancher worked in animal production until 1983. In 1979 he was diagnosed with a spine tumor and changed his ways. He began fighting chemical-based farming and became vegetarian, and then vegan. In addition to co-authoring his books, he became a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., president of EarthSave, and then founder/president of Voice for a Viable Future, a program to educate people about vegetarianism, environmentalism and organic farming. In the current debate, Lyman argued no, you can’t be a good environmentalist and still eat meat.

Nicolette Hahn Niman is the wife of Bill Niman, founder of Bay Area-based Niman Ranch. Their ranch is all about grass-fed beef, humane treatment for their animals and small farming. Their story is highly chronicled in the recent Jonathan Safran Foer book Eating Animals. In 2007, Bill Niman left his ranch because of conflicts between the economics of the farming business and the desire to humanely produce meat. Nicolette, herself a vegetarian, even convinced Bill to spare one of their farms cows she bonded with. The cow then became their pet. Niman sees nothing wrong with killing animals, as long as they have a “good life” prior to slaughter. She argued yes, you can be a good environmentalist and still eat meat.

According to one blogger’s account of the debate, Lyman kept the upper-hand when it came to the ethical argument against meat-eating. This is believable, since Niman seems to be a walking contradiction on that front. Vegetarianism might be a “personal choice,” but it is puzzling how someone can advocate so strongly for humanely raising animals for meat, sell it to others and still choose not to eat it herself.

But the environmental question is a different ballgame. A small farm can essentially be self-sustaining, with the cows eating grass, fertilizing the grass and growing more grass to eat. But what about the land needed for this kind of operation? The money (since this kind of farm would inevitably need to charge higher prices for their meat due to producing less than the concentrated animal feeding operations)? The small, though still present, pollution? We’ve told you about the environmental impacts of factory farms, the vast majority of farms in America. But what if small farming was the norm? Is that even a plausible scenario considering how many Americans like to eat meat? Maybe, like Lyman advocates, vegetarianism would do our planet a bigger favor?

The Lyman vs. Niman debate reportedly got pretty heated, and we’re sure the Care2 community has some thoughts on the issue, as well. So, Care2, what do you say? Can you be a “good environmentalist” and still eat meat?


photo credit: istock


Jo S.
Jo S3 years ago

Thank you Kayla.

Bill K.
Bill K5 years ago

(continued from below...)

The EPA reports that US farms pollute our waterways more than all industrial sources combined. The runoff from farms includes fertilizers, pesticides, eroding topsoil, and antibiotics. US farms generate 130 times the amount of sewage as humans do yet most of this waste is left untreated. Water pollution from farms is also responsible for creating dead zones in the oceans.

Animal agriculture uses 87% of all our farmland. Even the US with all its space is forced to import feed for livestock, much of which is grown in what was once tropical rainforests. In fact @ 1 acre of forest is cleared every year for every meat eater on Earth. And where livestock grazing is allowed wildlife habitat suffers and soil erodes.

It's true no one's hands are completely clean when it comes to the environment. But we have the power to make choices that can significantly reduce our impact. Eliminating animal products from our diet is a cheap, easy, healthy choice any individual can make today - without waiting for government to write new laws or for industry to change practices. A look at the statistics shows how significantly more damaging animal agriculture is to the environment than almost any other single human activity.

Bill K.
Bill K5 years ago

Animal agriculture is not sustainable. If everyone on Earth ate as many animal products as Americans we would need 4 Earth-sized planets to supply all the resources necessary. But in the US animal agriculture is so heavily subsidized by government handouts it hides the real cost in resources to produce meat, dairy, and eggs. Meanwhile much of the rest of the world is too poor to tax their citizens that much.

As to some of the claims made below... In the US 80% of all pesticides are used by animal agriculture. To help reduce the remaining 20% used on veggies, fruits, and lawns anyone can choose to go organic. They can also choose to not buy GMO soy. Fertilizers are not limited to a choice between cattle manure and hydrocarbons. Shipping animal products long distance requires significantly more fuel than shipping veggies. In fact it's more environmentally friendly to eat vegan even if the foods are shipped long distances than it is to eat locally raised animal products. Of course vegans can buy their produce locally too.

There are over 1 billion cattle on Earth. They return 1 pound of meat for every 16 pounds of food they eat. Hardly a sustainable system. But the toll they take on our natural resources is even more disturbing.

In the US animal agriculture uses 50% of our water. According to the USGS it takes more than 4,000 gallons of water to make one burger. A vegan could let his or her shower run 24/7 and not waste as much water as a meat eater.

The EPA reports

Kynthia B.
Cynthia B6 years ago

No,you can't.

Dale Overall

Intriguing debate but what is the difference? We still drive our cars, wash our laundry with soap, use the toilet, consume products made of plastics, computer usage, most live on the grid using electricity, go to school using paper products/go to work using manufactured goods. Unless we take up a small notch of land, live in a cave and throw off the shackles of modern living/homes/convenience we all contribute somehow to ruining our environment. Perhaps shipping half the human populace to live in moon colonies would take the edge of Planet Earth.

Until Mother Nature redesigns life on Earth to sustain itself by eating rock pate we all feed on organic entities be it plants, meat or whatever.

People can get on their high horses and stop make moral judgements about The Other, but no "side" has a lock on Truth, Virtue and Morality as much as some wish to believe. Insults and invective win no converts.

All one can do is eat organically if possible, soy is close to 60 per cent GMO. Pesticides are used for many veggies/trucking veggies from A to B results in road kill as well. No one has clean hands living on Earth unless you wish to live in a rainforest/cave without modernity.

Juan T.
JP T7 years ago

Continued from below..

In other words NO CATTLE = TOTAL DEPENDENCE on hydrocarbon-derived fertilizer.

Nobody has done the correct carbon accounting on this matter. Cattle do not equal CAFOs. Vegetarians do not equal environmentalists.

Juan T.
JP T7 years ago

A much more interesting article would read, "Can you be an Environmentalist and NOT eat meat?". When all the emotion is stripped away from the debate ("I can't handle cute animals being killed") - it's pretty clear that eating a conventional soybean (genetically modified, grown on oceans of acres that have been carpet bombed with pesticides, herbicides and nitrogen fertilizer... where ONLY THE ONE species exists - "Geee, I wonder what happened to all the others?") is infinitely more morally reprehensible, and less sustainable, than eating a grassfed steer from a responsible organization. In fact, eating the fruit of conventional monocrop ag is the flipside of the same coin as eating a CAFO derived protein. They're both horrible. The ag portion accounts for the direct death of far more species (which is what makes sooo many vegetarians total hypocrites), but they're both totally unsustainable.

Here's the question, the real debate: Put two farms side-by-side. Neither of them is allowed to import a single chemical product or genetically modifed seed. One of the farms rotates cattle and crops. The other can't use any animals. Guess what happens? The farm with no cattle HAS NO FERTILITY. Cattle turn photosynthesis into nitrogen fertilizer. That fertilizer is an essential ingredient in forming and maintaining the cap of hummus from which all your organic veggies can grow. Rudolph Steiner has written tomes on the matter... In other words NO CATTLE = TOTAL DEPENDENCE on hydrocarb

Victoria L.
Victoria L7 years ago

I find it hypocritical, and upon this realization I made the meat-free change.

Ludwig V.
frank kelleher8 years ago

I work in Real Estate office and my co-workers are all unrepentant meat eaters. They drive fancy cars and live in big houses. I'm a 6 year vegetarian and I go to great pains to capture all of our coffee grounds for my compost pile. I often root through our trash to divert the tons of paper within it to our recycling bin. My fellow agents can't be bothered to sort real trash from recyclable paper. My $20 home electric bill is half taxes and half actual consumption. I'm an energy miser extrordinaire. I like it that my diet is ostensibly environmentally friendly, but that isn't my primary motivation. Eating meat made me feel like a ... liberal. That is, someone who desires to live entirely at the expense of another, and who can torture any and all logic in order to justify that theft. All of the people described above think that they are good environmentalists because they voted for Obama. Typical. Liberals run their mouths while conservatives like me actually do the work and set an example. An example they choose to ignore. I wish that I could away with pretending that talking is the same as doing.

Lena Rehberger
Lena Rehberger8 years ago

No, sorry, you absolutely can't. You're only another lousy hypocrite!