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Warrior for a Healthy Planet

by James Faber

Conscious Choice, November 1998

Beef...it's what's for dinner. It's as much a part of American culture as country music, a Chevrolet, or Grandma's apple pie. But the fact is, most Americans don't realize how meat is produced, or what goes on behind the scenes of the beef industry. Nor do they understand how most of the other food they eat is produced, or the consequences of their food choices -- especially the havoc a meat-centered diet wreaks on the health of human beings, animals, and the environment.

Howard Lyman is one man with intimate knowledge of factory farming, chemical agriculture, and their effects in the United States. He is a former insider of the American beef industry, and is considered an authority on American beef production as well as its chief antagonist.

"The American consumer is eating a product being fed with hormones, antibiotics, steroids, manure, and ground-up dead animals," Lyman says. "The difficulty is that the money is in the hands of the multi-national corporations beating the drum about eating their garbage, and it's killing this nation."

The story of Lyman's journey and transition from factory farmer to vegetarian activist, including his experience and success as a defendant with Oprah Winfrey in the now famous Texas food disparagement lawsuit, is told in his new book, Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat, written with Glen Merzer. His story is both fascinating and unique. 

Lyman inherited his Montana dairy farm like his father and grandfather before him, but after receiving a B.S. degree in general agriculture from Montana State University, and a two year stint in the Army, he returned to the farm and abandoned the traditional organic methods. Instead, he rode the wave of chemically-based agricultural production that had swept through the United States at the end of the second world war as part of a government effort to revive a depreciating chemical industry.

"We have done what the government set out to do after World War II, which was turn agriculture into chemical junkies," says Lyman. "I saw the organic soil go from a living productive base to a sterile, chemical saturated mono-cultural ground because of my so-called modern methods."

Lyman had turned his modest 540-acre farm into a $5 million-a-year agribusiness with ten thousand acres of crops, a thousand range cows and seven thousand head of cattle in a factory feedlot. He continued his operation with little concern about the effects of the chemicals he was using on the environment, or on the consumer who ended up with meat from his feedlot on their dinner table -- until a snowy night in 1979 altered his life forever. He was diagnosed with a tumor on his spine and given a one-in-a-million chance of walking again. It was then, while lying in the hospital awaiting emergency surgery, that he decided to make a change. In Mad Cowboy, he explains, "I made up my mind right then and there that no matter what the outcome of my operation, I'd dedicate the rest of my life to restoring the land to what it had been when I'd had the good fortune to be born with it."

Ever since recovering from his operation, Lyman has stayed true to his word. He has become a voice for family farmers, animal rights, and the environment. Today, he is president of the International Vegetarian Union and keeps busy maintaining a grueling road schedule to promote an animal free diet.

Human health issues
One of the most convincing arguments for a meat-and-dairy-free diet is how directly meat and dairy products affect human health. A 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health found that 68 percent of all diseases in the U.S. are diet-related.

Many scientific studies have linked human health problems to diet. In Mad Cowboy, Lyman highlights a number of different studies that point to a meat-based diet as a cause of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity in the United States.

"We have an absolute medical disaster facing this country, with an American public on a diet just loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol," he says. Instead, he advocates diets like those recommended by Dean Ornish or John McDougall, which are low in fat, high in fiber, and get most of their calories from carbohydrates rather than protein.

Studies have also shown that traces of herbicides, pesticides, and anitbiotics can be found in many of the products sold to the consumer. "According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 75 percent of all carcinogens and toxins in the human body get there through animal products, and 16 percent through vegetables," says Lyman. "That means 91 percent of all carcinogens and toxins in our bodies can be eliminated by doing two things -- giving up animal products and buying organic produce."

The scientific evidence is impressive, but Lyman's own story is as effective. Among the arsenal of experiences Lyman draws from to back up his message, is the example of his own health -- he used to weigh over 300 pounds, with a cholesterol level over 300. Since becoming vegan, he has lost 130 pounds and brought his cholesterol level to 140. According to Lyman, of ten friends back home in Montana who shared the same diet he did before becoming vegan, he is the only one who hasn't had heart disease or cancer. Half of the ten have already died before reaching age 60.

"Being from Montana, I would rather be caught riding a stolen horse than admit to someone I was a vegetarian," he says. "The fact is, I knew that if I didn't change my diet, I was not going to live for very much longer."

Even despite the overwhelming evidence of the dangers of an animal based diet, a misinformed U.S. public continues to jeopardize its health with poor diet choices. In Mad Cowboy, Lyman's analogies of the meat and dairy industries to the tobacco industry illustrate how the general public is misled. "The meat and dairy industries thrive by keeping the general population too confused or misinformed to change their destructive habits," he says. "But the case for the health benefits of a vegetarian diet is at least as clear, and established in at least as many scientific studies, as the case for not smoking."

Animal issues
Most people have heard stories about what goes on in factory farms and slaughter houses, but choose to ignore the details and not think about the fact that farm animals can experience stress, frustration, fear, pain, and pleasure.

On a factory farm the animals are overcrowded in concrete feedlots, or virtually immobilized in crates or cages. The greatest number of animals are raised in the smallest possible space at the lowest possible cost to maximize productivity and profits. Factory-farmed animals are treated like machines with no concern for their pain and suffering.

According to the The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), since there are no federal laws regulating the treatment of animals on farms, managers are free to use whatever methods of production are most profitable, regardless of their impact on the animals' well-being.

Lyman explains, "The percentage of food produced for the American consumer in factory farms is increasing as the number of family farms decreases. Today in Wisconsin we're seeing four small family dairy farmers go out of business every day."

In a cattle feedlot, the animals are corralled in roofless pens with a feed trough on one end, and are fed an unnatural diet, along with hormones, to achieve the main goal of the feedlot operator: make them grow as big and fat as possible, as quickly as possible. With animals in confinement, disease and health problems also become an issue for the operator. To combat this problem, feedlot operators put antibiotics in the feed of the animals, and spray insecticides directly onto them. According to Lyman, one-half of all the anitbiotics in the U.S. are fed to animals -- these are the traces that eventually make it onto the consumer's plate.

The methods used for the slaughter of the animals are just as inhumane as the methods used for raising them. Cattle are stunned with a steel bolt through the head, then their throats are cut, leaving them to bleed to death. If one of the animals gets frightened, the others can sense the fear and become restless. In a written statement for the McDonald's McLibel case, Lyman states, "The animals are terrified at the slaughter plant, and the cruelty inflected on the animal in their last moments on earth [is] indescribable."

Environmental issues
Very few consumers are aware of the impact of their food choices on the environment. The current methods of agriculture in the U.S. are extremely resource-inefficient, and have serious effects on water supplies, topsoil, rainforests, and pollution.

According to statistics from the HSUS, to produce one pound of grain fed meat requires between 300 and 500 gallons of water. That means 50 percent of our water usage in the U.S. goes to livestock production, depleting our natural aquifers.

Cattle grazing also depletes resources. More than one-third of the Earth's land surface has been desertified to some degree by livestock grazing. In the rainforest, land is being clearcut for grazing at a rate of 5 million acres a year, according to some estimates, but the American public remains in the dark. "While most Americans are concerned about rainforest destruction, few realize that cattle ranching stands as its salient cause," Lyman says. "An estimated 70 percent of the clearing of the Amazon is for cattle pasture."

Another issue is the water pollution caused by livestock waste dumped into streams and rivers. Les Inglis explains in his book, Diet for a Gentle World, "Water pollution from the livestock industry is two to three times greater than water pollution from all other industrial activities." According to Lyman, the largest feedlots produce as much waste as the largest American cities, with waste that can be several hundred times more concentrated than raw domestic sewage.

"Certainly these [environmental] problems wouldn't disapear overnight if the world suddenly became vegetarian," Lyman says. "But no other lifestyle change could produce as positive an impact on these profound threats to our collective survival as the adoption of a plant-based diet."

Hope for the future
All the different reasons for making a change in diet can seem overwhelming, but there is a brighter future. Lyman has seen the worst, yet still remains optimistic. "I personally believe we're winning," he says. "That's why we see so much money spent on advertising from the meat and dairy industries -- they're terrified that the word is getting out."

One of the keys to ending factory farming in the U.S. will be to empower the consumer with the education needed to make informed choices about their food. "If we're going to have a producer-consumer alliance, which uses small family farmers producing food without pesticides, herbicides, hormones and medication, it's not going to happen because of the government, or the farmers," Lyman says. "It will happen when the consumers use their money to buy the kind of product it's going to take to keep the farmers that are producing correctly, in business."

According to Lyman, the organic industry in the U.S. continues to grow at a rate of about 25 percent per year since 1992, and today there are 15,000 more farmer's markets than just one year ago. He is also quick to point out that it's easier to be vegetarian today than at any time in recent history, but he warns people to get educated about a vegetarian lifestyle before they decide to make a change in their diet. "I would say understand the issue, then attack it in a sensible fashion," he says. "Either eliminate all of the animal products, or take out the dairy and significantly cut down on the meat in your diet -- then ask yourself how you feel."

Since 1991, Lyman has traveled over 100,000 miles a year to educate consumers about the dangers and concequences of an animal-based diet. "The nice thing about it is, for change we need a crisis -- and we have a crisis," he says. "We will either implement the start of the solution for our children and grandchildren, or they will not have a future."

Howard Lyman will be speaking at "Lifestyles of the Healthy and Humane" Conference on Vegetarianism, on November 14 at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. For more information contact SPEAK at 773-925-1277.

The Humane Society of the United States, 301-258-8255.

EarthSave, 502-589-7676

Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat, by Howard F. Lyman with Glen Merzer. Scribner: NY (1998).

Diet for a Gentle World: Eating with Conscience, by Les Inglis. Avery Publishing Group, Inc.: NY (1993).

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