Big Or Small, Interest Conflicts Are Interest Conflicts

» November 4th, 2014

Scroll down and check out the list of endorsements¬†for Nicolette Hahn Niman’s latest defense of beef production. Blurbs from Marion Nestle, Temple Grandin, Allan Savory, Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, and Dan Barber surely must make Hahn happy. But what’s strange to me—and I’m genuinely wondering if I’m missing something obvious here—is that NHN is a rancher. My point being this: isn’t there something intellectually disingenuous about endorsing as truth a book defending beef written by a person who makes a living from what she defends? Can there be real objectivity in this arrangement?

Let’s look at it this way. Imagine if big wig representatives from the United Beef Council, National Corn Growers Association, and Dow Chemical plugged a book written by a Monsanto executive about the brilliance of GMOs. Would the likes of Nestle, Grandin, Savory, et al. take such an arrangement seriously? Do you think they’d say, “well, gee, let’s give Big Ag the benefit of the doubt and assume they can deliver an unbiased review”? Of course they wouldn’t. They’d mock the hell out of this shameless plugging. They’d call foul and take to social media and pitch a fit.

Well, if the defenders of intensively managed beef production—a principle element of the sustainable food movement—want to be taken seriously, they need to practice what they preach. Instead, they accept a double standard when they condemn every study supported by Big Ag as automatically tainted while allowing–and endorsing–a study defending ranching by a rancher.

I hope Hahn’s readers are smarter than her blurbers.


26 Responses to Big Or Small, Interest Conflicts Are Interest Conflicts

  1. Teresa Wagner says:

    Temple Grandon I get. She’s always been ok with murdering animals as long as their trauma is lessened slightly by her special shoots. But Alice Waters??? Will never set foot in her place or buy her books.

    And the author–vegetarian turned cattle rancher??? Did the devil get her???

  2. What wouldn’t make sense to me is living a life one CAN’T defend. That one lives the life that one has researched and found worthy is surely rational. If the book was fluff, that would be one thing … but (I am currently reading it) from what I have read so far, it is meticulously researched and every statement factually backed up.

    • James says:

      Terrific. I’m glad the book is well researched. I’m sure it is. My post was not directed at NHN, just those hwo endorsed the book, and my critique was highlighting an inconsistency that it’d be good to hear them defend.

  3. Jolly Vegan says:

    Maybe you should actually read the book rather than just the blurbs

  4. Barry Estabrook says:

    James, as one of Niman’s “blurbers,” I have to say that there was no attempt to hide that she is a rancher. It’s there on the cover for all to see.

    Her point–backed up by some pretty solid research–that pastured beef production is not as environmentally harmful (if it is even harmful) as grain-fed, feed-lot meat, is well worth considering, whether you eat meat or not.

    • James says:

      Trust me, I’m sure Nicolette’s arguments are strong–not infallible, but strong. But my point was to note how advocates for one cause will violate standards that they apply to another cause that they oppose. Opponents of industrial ag routinely play the conflict of interest card, but keep it in their pocket when the cause is one they support. In any case, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • regenerative ag-man says:

        Maybe because Niman doesn’t support “intensive” systems, but extensive ones instead. Seems strange that you try to align Niman with “industrial ag”when she has been routinely a critic of such systems

      • regenerative ag-man says:

        Though why do you try to lump Niman in with “intensive” i.e. industrial Ag systems? That’s a bit disingenuine since Niman is routinely a critic of such systems

    • James says:

      Oh, and I do eat meat. I eat insects.

      • regenerative ag-man says:

        canibal ;-)

      • unethical_vegan says:

        I’d really like to read more about how and why. I’ve come across a few commercial insect foods in the USA (e.g. crickets) but I’d prefer to eat a little lower on the insect food chain and food-grade sources are expensive. (I’m aware that feeder insects are available but I’m not sure about the safety of these sources.)

        I’ve considered eating sessile bivalves but have refrained because I believe they better reduce suffering/exploitation by functioning as a *replacement* for non-vegan meat.

    • Dylan says:

      Barry, I am curious what you think of James’s critisim regarding the double standard food writers often have. It seems valid to me.

  5. Jolly Vegan says:

    architects should write about medicine, medical doctors should write about flowers, botanists should write about rocket ships, chefs should write about astrophysics…So yep if you actually do something you should be disqualified from writing about it…..well that seems pretty logical to me.

    • James says:

      My post has nothing to do with Niman’s book or her qualifications for writing it. I’m sure it’s an excellent (if not perfect) book. My point was to note the double standard applied by her blurbers. Please be aware of that distinction.

      • Jolly Vegan says:

        Well, her blurbers obviously read the book, so again why should someone actually having direct experience with the topic that the person is writing about necessarily establish any sort of double standard for the person “blurbing” if that person agreed with the content of the book?

        If Dan Barber or Alice Waters had something positive to write about another chef’s book on cooking would the fact that the chef who wrote the book about cooking makes his money from cooking necessarily create a double standard for Barber or Waters?

        • James says:

          Ugh. My problem is not that they found the book favorable–that’s fine– but it’s that they would never have tolerated such an arrangement with a book supporting big ag blurbed by supporters of big ag. If you continue to be confused by my argument, feel free to email me ( There’s no point to have this discussion in the open.

          • regenerative ag-man says:

            Though again your argument is undermined by the fact that Niman is a critic of industrial “intensive” ag not a supporter of it. Niman advocates for properly managed “extensive” systems with cattle on pasture. So it isn’t incongruent for these other critics of the food system to support another critic…And thus your whole argument fails miserably

  6. Siggy says:

    I look forward to reading a book written by a really smart, environmentally conscientious animal lover, who has thought long and hard about her choice to raise food animals. She’s a rancher. She’s a vegetarian. She truly sees the issues at hand from multiple perspectives.

  7. Dave Wasser says:

    My understanding of the publishing industry is that many of these blurbs are not written by the person to whom the blurb is attributed. The blurbs are written by the publisher’s marketing department.

    The marketing department decides what blurbs will help sell the book, and then they go looking for people who are willing to attach their names to each blurb. Some people agree to attach their name to a blurb even if they haven’t read the book. It’s a dishonest system, but that’s the way a lot of things go in this world.

    As to why people would agree to endorse a book they haven’t read…well I assume that some of them just want to get their name out there. Their name on the back of a book makes them look like an authority on the subject. Perhaps there are other reasons.

    I did see an interview on C-Span with an author who said he regretted attaching his name to a blurb that he didn’t write, about a book that he hadn’t read. He said that this kind of thing happens all the time in the publishing industry.

    • James says:

      Interesting. I’ve written dozens of blurbs (not for self interested hacks), but have never been asked to sign one. Need to become more important, I suppose.

  8. Objective Observer says:

    Really curious as to why you don’t call out Richard Oppenlander as well for his fairly egregious conflict of interest. He’s a dentist, but he’s also the founder of a veggie patty, and vegan cookie company called Opi’s that sells vegan substitute products retail and wholesale to institutions including hospitals and schools. So if people switch from beef patties to the products his company is selling, Oppenlander profits immensely

    Now Oppenlander never discloses his direct business interest in the movie Cowspiracy (he was also the statistical adviser on this film) or in any of his numerous lectures. In his book he does mention it, but only briefly…and probably only vegans read his book. That book though is full of many absurd statements and numbers that he goes onto repeat in the film and lectures. Again any real analysis of what he promulgates makes one pretty much have to conclude that he’s really just being extreme to sell more of the veggie patties or other vegan products he hawks. Hyperbola is great for his business interests.

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