WSW: History And The Animals We Eat

Oct 4, 2017

This 2011 photo shows three cows at a factory farm near Magnolia, Wisconsin
Credit Dinesh Ramde / AP Photo

These days, the meat and dairy products on your table probably came from a densely packed "factory farm." But former Kalamazoo City commissioner Nicolette Hahn Niman says it wasn't always so.


Now a cattle rancher in California with her husband, Bill Niman, she's written two books about the relationship between humans and farm animals - Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production and Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. Hahn Niman will speak about that history at Western Michigan University on October 12 at 6:45 p.m. in Kirsch Auditorium. She will deliver the annual Hamner Lecture sponsored by WMU's Department of History, where her father was a professor for three decades.

Hahn Niman says there were no "factory farms" until about fifty years ago. Until then, farm animals like cattle and pigs were what's now called "free-range," grazing on the land. Today they are usually confined in small pens and feed on grain, not grass, in conditions critics like Hahn Niman say are inhumane. She also says the practice leads to other problems, including the over-use of antibiotics.

Hahn Niman advocates a return to farm animals that graze on the land. She argues that animals have a critical role to play on keeping soil healthy and productive, as long as grazing is done properly. Beef and other meat from "free- range" animals costs more at the supermarket and restaurant. But Hahn Niman says that's because federal subsidies for grain producers artificially reduce the price of factory farm products.

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