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Q&A with Bill Niman on the True Cost of Food: Critical Control Points

By: Christine Grillo

BALTIMORE—May 16, 2019. When rancher and businessman Bill Niman visited the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), we were able to chat with him about his current enterprise and ideas. What began as an interview with this thought leader about the externalized costs of the food system and the true cost of food, topics at the heart of CLF’s research, became a conversation about animal welfare, regenerative agriculture and reform.

Bill Niman is a well-known figure in the ranching world, having spent more than 40 years raising livestock in humane and sustainable ways. Along with his wife Nicolette Hahn Niman, he has consistently spoken out about a number of controversial issues related to livestock production, including the misuse of antibiotics, animal welfare and the climate benefits of pasture-based production. His current enterprise is Bill Niman Farm in Marin County, California. Near the ocean, the ranch is where Niman raises grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef, as well as heritage turkeys. He promotes the ranch as a sustainable business model. From 2005 to 2008, he served on the Pew Commission, which investigated the externalization of costs in the industrial agriculture industry.

Q: What are your ideas about the externalized costs of industrial agriculture?

One number that sticks in my head [from the report issued by the 2008 Pew Commission on Industrial Food Animal Production, “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America”] is that the cost of industrial agriculture, the dumping of waste in our air and water, the creation of antibiotic resistant pathogens, has cost public human health $30 billion annually. And I continue to see the situation worsening, whether you focus on antibiotic resistant pathogens and the cost to human health, or the treatment of water to make it potable, the long-term consequences for the environment, the consequences for communities, farmers and rural towns, or areas where there are concentrated animal feeding operations, whether it be the constant odor, the water degradation, the air degradation, and social consequences that go along with it. It's really cheapening people's lives in ways that are hard to quantify, and it's difficult to apply a metric to it.

Q: Can you quantify the externalization of costs when it comes to how the animals are treated?

I remember when we visited Duplin County, which is the epicenter of the North Carolina flood plain, the Smithfield Empire—in order to make industrial ag work there, the farmers there have really been forced to ignore the basic needs of their animals. As we were touring there, when we were talking about confining, gestating, and breeding animals in cages, someone said, ‘These pigs don't even know that they can turn around, they've never had the opportunity,’ as if that made it okay. It was so insensitive to these really intelligent animals, more intelligent than dogs, more intelligent than my dog, I know that. And this is a way of rationalizing this factory model that they created. And when the water table was about this high above the ground during Hurricane Matthew, the pigs were all underwater.

Q: Do you feel like those farmers want to do something better by their animals?

What's terrifying to me is when you talk to young and middle-aged farmers, who've never looked a pig in the eye out in the pasture, and felt their love and exuberance for life, because all they know is looking in the eyes of a psychotic animal on a confinement operation. They think that's the way it's supposed to be. And they genuinely believe that they're doing the right things by the animals by providing a mosquito-free or temperature-controlled environment, even though the pigs may have to live on concrete their entire life and not be able to do anything but get up and lie down. They think that's okay, because that's what they were taught. They think this business model will support their family, albeit not that greatly, and they have these heavily capitalized operations and are indebted to the company store. And they think this is the way supposed to be.

Q: In terms of labor, how does a regenerative operation compare to the industrial model?

It is more work. And there's no question that industrial farm models are really easier to operate. Ultimately, with technology, the dream is that every farmer can get up and push a few buttons on his computer and turn his GPS on and run his farm from the kitchen table or the local coffee shop. That's what the capital-intensive, high-tech farms are coming to—$500,000 tractors and operating by technology, enabling one or two people to farm a lot of land.

Q: Do you feel like you're swimming upstream promoting regenerative agriculture?

That may be an understatement characterizing the struggle.

Q: You’ve mentioned that consumer education is important if we’re going to reform agriculture. What do consumers need to learn?

Everybody doesn’t need to eat filet mignon. Organ meats and braised meats are just as nutritious as filet mignon, but they have much lower market value, so everybody can access it. Everybody needs to know, when they have a whole chicken, there's several meals there. No, let's not throw away the carcass. You start with eating the easy muscles and then cook that carcass and pull the meat off, maybe you have tacos or chicken salad, and then you have the soup. That's how we have to start. Can you pay $20 for chicken instead of $10 or $12 and you feed your family for three days, rather than ‘Oh, this is only $10, so I'll pick what I want to throw the rest away?’

Q: You’ve mentioned a critical control point being the slaughterhouses. Can you say more about that?

I'm on a mission. I think the critical control point is really harvesting, and small- to medium-scale farmers have been denied access. They can raise animals, but they can't get them harvested. They can't get them slaughtered. The slaughter industry is very concentrated in the hands of four companies that control about 80 to 90 percent of the slaughter in this country. And in many respects, in processing animals for food, small is not necessarily beautiful, from a food safety point of view, efficiency, economy of scale, from the animal welfare point of view, and the ability to package and utilize every part of the animal, which is a moral imperative when you're killing animals. The big guys do that well, and the small guys don't.

There's been a lot of talk about mobile slaughter as a solution for smaller operations, but they have to compost much of the animal that the big guys turn into food for human consumption or some other important use in the food chain. That’s bad to me, because that really is contrary to the moral imperative. Raising an animal, you're going to kill that animal, convert it to food for human consumption, and you are obligated in that equation to use every part of that animal in the highest and best way. And from an animal welfare point of view, because the industry finally has embraced the notion that if you treat an animal well, and calmly, and with respect and dignity prior to slaughter, the meat’s better. In big modern slaughterhouses the animals don't freak out like they do in smaller dungeon-like, undercapitalized older operations.

Q: You’ve expressed some interesting ideas about surveillance in processing centers.

Most of the EU's slaughterhouses film every stunning, there's this continuous camera throughout the slaughterhouse. Every killing of an animal is videotaped, or digitized. And there are plants in this country that are doing that now, and it is definitely moving to the future. And I think we'll see a lot of controlling the mistreatment of animals at that location. We're in a surveillance society.

Q: Would farmers want cameras on their farms?

I think any good farmer would want that. I think that if thoughtful farmers want people to see what they're doing, that would be a positive for them, because if you want to have a certified or humanely raised third-party verification on your meat, why don't they include 24-hour cameras in the buildings, so that the public, or at least their auditors, could take a look at what's going on at any time they want to? The idea that consumers who are eating these animals can't see how either they're raised or killed—I think that lack of transparency is an issue. That's something that policymakers could mandate, that all animal agriculture operations and slaughterhouses have to open their doors to visitors.

Q: What does “regenerative ag” mean to you?

Having permanent pastures, and animals grazing on it, it is hard to be more regenerative than that. So that was a kind of a classic model from the 1950s, where you have a four-year cycle where you grow corn one year, soy the next year, plant alfalfa, clover, permanent pasture, graze animals on it—that was regenerative agriculture, because you were actually improving your soil.  When we talk about sustainable, it is to maintain the status quo. But when you're stewarding land, you're supposed to regenerate soil and make that ground more productive for future generations.

In pastoral nations they allow grazing animals to harvest naturally occurring cellulose material plants. They don't plow, plant, till, store, harvest and transport this concentrated energy in the plant to a livestock confinement facility, to feed the animal. In North America, we feed grain to cattle because we can. Canada and the United States have been blessed with all this top soil, so it's so much easier to put a whole bunch of cattle in one place and plow and plant this corn and soybean, externalize all the cost to the environment, right?

Q: You’ve talked about the “proven farm technology” of the 1950s. Do you want to return to that?

I'm not suggesting that we abandon all the technology and the tools, and I don't think we could get back to those days. Communities have disappeared, actual capital has dwindled. What I do find hope in, though, and hopefully it's not naïve, is that there is a lot of interest in food. Small family farms are not going to feed our country. But reasonably sized farms, sensibly sized farms, under thoughtful management, in cooperative associations, can do that. I firmly believe it.

Q: If there were one policy shift you could make happen, what would it be?

I really think policymakers who have granted charters to USDA kill plants need to mandate that their license to do business should be subject to opening their doors to smaller operations.

The big guys don't want them. I believe we should bring policymakers in who say, ‘Okay, Tyson, you have to do this, otherwise we're going to take your license way to do business, you have to open your doors to reasonably scaled animal livestock operations, and do a custom kill on return,’ which is the jargon. Because they have the intellectual capital, they have the management talent, they have the know-how to run these kill plants in the best possible ways.

More interviews on the True Cost of Food


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