Feature Article
Book Review Diary of A Mad


Mad Cowboy
by Howard Lyman with Glen Merzer

IN 1996, OPRAH WINFREY had fourth generation cattle farmer turned vegan spokesperson Howard Lyman as a guest on her show. Lyman stated that turning cattle, traditional ruminants, into cannibals by feeding them rendered cow byproducts, could cause the spread of mad cow disease in this country. Her other guest, a representative of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, was very unhappy with Oprah?s response, "Cows are herbivores. They shouldn?t be eating other cows. It has just stopped me cold from eating another hamburger."

Lyman, Winfrey and Harpo Productions were sued by a group of Texas cattlemen under the Texas Food Disparagement Act. In spite of the obvious conflict with First Amendment freedoms, thirteen states have such legislation, preventing consumer advocates from openly discussing the safety of our food supply. In 1998 Lyman, Winfrey and Harpo Productions were found not liable for damages. This trial made Howard Lyman a household name, and Mad Cowboy tells his story.

Howard Lyman was born into a family of organic dairy farmers. They loved and respected nature's cycles of productivity and repose. As a boy Howard would play in the rich soil; he felt the life in it, right down to the worms, and he was all boy. He describes his experience of going out shooting with his brother, "Anything that moved, and a few things that didn?t." Once, in a particularly renegade mood, we shot the glass insulation off all the local power lines. From our point of view, those damn things were just hanging up there, practically asking for it. It was a point of view the sheriff didn?t quite share."

Except for football, he was bored during high school. After the army, when it became apparent that he must take over the family business, he enrolled at Montana State University in order to study at the College of Agriculture. His professors were chemists and academicians with no real farming experience, but he went for all their new-fangled technology. He came home intending to put into practice everything he had learned about chemically enhanced agriculture. His father told him he was wrong. Lyman learned firsthand just how wrong as the chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides gradually killed off the vegetation on the land and later contributed to the health crisis that changed his life forever: a tumor on his spine.

The night before surgery, an operation that had a one in a million chance of restoring his ability to walk, Lyman took stock of his life. "Having ten thousand acres didn't count. Having seven thousand head of cattle didn't count. Having thirty trucks and twenty tractors and seven combines didn't count. Having a $5 million-a-year agribusiness didn't count. The pleasure of writing million dollar checks didn't count. My family counted, and the land counted." He vowed, whatever the outcome of the operation, to restore the land to what it had been when he was born to it.

The surgical success forced him to make good on his promise. When a bank refused to lend him the necessary money to turn his farm back into an organic one, he began to put together the "interconnectedness of banking, factory farming, and the giant chemical and pharmaceutical firms." In an emotional reckoning, Lyman decided to quit farming altogether and run for Congress on a campaign of "Clean Air, Clean Water, and Clean Food."

Although he didn't win the election, Lyman took a job in Washington as a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union. He learned the ins and outs of D.C. quickly and was instrumental in passing the Organic Production Act of 1990. In battling Monsanto over the use of Bovine Growth Hormone, Lyman discovered just how entrenched a war can be. Not only was the formula making cows sick enough to require huge doses of antibiotics just to keep them on their feet, but these chemicals were being ingested by humans. Monsanto fought to keep dairies that refused to use the stuff from being able to advertise that fact on their packaging. He felt himself growing cynical about the chances of effecting change through legislation.

At the same time his accumulated knowledge began to press in on him: That the greatest loss of rainforests in the world is to make space for cattle grazing, that livestock outnumber humans five to one, that 50 percent of our water usage is dedicated to meat production, that we lose topsoil at a rate of an inch every sixteen years, that our rivers are polluted primarily from cattle and pig wastes, that animals suffer horribly in confinement, and that a billion people go to bed hungry while the wealthy use sixteen pounds of grain to feed cattle for the production of one pound of beef.

In the human arena our typical high protein/high fat animal diet causes cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and hypertension. "And suddenly the circle came together for me ." We were eating dead animals, and it wasn't working." It was then and there that Howard Lyman, cowboy and cattle rancher, became a vegetarian.

Perhaps Lyman is best known to the American public for his determination to inform us about the dangers of mad cow disease. This is the condition that caused cattle in England to lose their equilibrium, become belligerent and die. Science proved that the disease was passed from sick sheep to cows when the sheep became cattle food. The British House of Commons Agriculture Committee tried to cover up the alarming suspicion (later fact) that humans ingesting infected cows were at risk of contracting a brain disorder called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

In a public relations campaign, the Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, even went so far as to attempt to feed his four- year-old daughter a hamburger on television to demonstrate the safety of the product. To her credit, she refused to take a bite.

Lyman continues to work, to broaden our base of knowledge, to teach by example. He doesn?t indulge in judgment or blame. The desecration of our land and water must grieve him terribly. He is, after all, a man of the earth. But Lyman knows that it is impossible to change people's minds by making them wrong. People are people, often trying to do their best in confusing and overwhelming times. He is a warrior, fighting the good fight, make no mistake, but he fights fair. He keeps his head up and his eye on the prize.

In this case the prize is clean air, clean water, and clean food. For our children, and their children. As a mother, I am in ongoing dialogue with other parents about the safety and well-being of our kids. We talk endlessly about sex, drugs and rock and roll. Gangs. Crime. Designated drivers. Curfews. We attempt to micro-manage their lives out of the deepest love in our hearts. I am certainly not saying that these issues aren't real and important, but I wonder at the complete lack of discussion about the bigger picture, our environmental problems. Is it possible that our confusion and guilt over the world we are passing on to them cause us to sublimate our fears, misplace them?

It is in confronting these realities that we need a "mad cowboy." We need men like Howard Lyman to help us organize our thoughts, to clarify the information coming at us from all sides and to empower us to act with integrity. To show us how to vote with our dollars as well as our conscience. My way of spreading the word is to give everyone I know a copy Mad Cowboy. It is a gift of heart that truly keeps on giving. ###


[Jan/Feb 1999]

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