"Public enemy #1"--this is what cattlemen had dubbed Howard F. Lyman, a successful rancher himself until age 40. After he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in April 1996 to discuss Mad Cow Disease, both he and Oprah were sued by a group of Texas cattlemen for publicly disparaging a perishable commodity.

But Howard has done much more than tick off ranchers. For the past 15 years, he has been educating the public on organic farming and making informed food choices. As a Washington, DC lobbyist for small farmers, he helped pass the Organic Standards Act, and today he heads the Humane Society's "Eating with Conscience" campaign. Below, Howard discusses the trial and what he's been doing since.

McDougall: Why were you sued by the Texas cattlemen?

Lyman: John, the only thing I called for in that show was that we stop grinding up cows and feeding them to other cows. When I said that, 20 million viewers understood exactly what I was saying. Had I said we have to stop feeding "bovines to bovines," or "ruminate protein" to "ruminates," the cattlemen wouldn't have been pissed off.

I also said that if we didn't stop feeding cows to cows, in 10 years we could have an event that makes AIDS look like the common cold. That's because England had just announced that Mad Cow Disease can spread to humans.

Several months later, the U.S. in fact banned cows from eating cow parts, goats and sheep. But this ban doesn't go far enough. Today, cows can still be fed cow blood as well as other animals, such as horses and pigs, which may have eaten other diseased animals. (Mad Cow Disease started in England when cows were fed sheep infected with scrapie.) In fact, about 75% of the 95 million beef cattle in America are routinely given feed that includes animal parts, aka "protein concentrates."

McDougall: What were some of the highlights of the Amarillo, Texas trial?

Lyman: One of their expert witnesses admitted on the stand he was being paid $150,000 to $200,000, and he testified for 10 minutes. I do believe the cattlemen spent more money in this trial than what they were suing us for.

Another man from the Chicago Board of Trade testified that the Oprah show had driven the futures market in beef way down. But the same day of the so-called "Oprah drop" he had said something completely different on Chicago TV. In an interview, he said the market had been driven down by high grain prices, not the Oprah show. And we replayed that videotape.

At first, I thought they were going to win. The largest employer in Amarillo is a cattle-slaughter facility, and the income of everyone on that jury, in one way or another, depended on the cattle industry. You never saw so many hats, boots and belt buckles in all your life. We asked for a change in venue, and the judge denied it out of hand. But I think the jury believed in the right of free speech as much as we did. After six weeks of trial, they came back in less than six hours and found us not liable.

McDougall: And that should have been the end of it?

Lyman: It should have been. But the cattle ranchers have appealed, with a ruling expected spring 1999. Also, 130 feedlot operators have filed another suit. I believe when we win the appeal, the second suit will be thrown out and this chapter will come to an end.

McDougall: Don't you think they've brought a lot of negative publicity to themselves?

Lyman: Oh, I think they not only shot their foot off, they shot their head off. The cattle industry today is dying, and I think this was the worst publicity it could have ever received. Remember, U.S. per-capita consumption of beef used to be 95 pounds annually, and today it's down to 65 pounds. Meanwhile, the trial has given me a much bigger forum and media profile; I'm broadcast on 3,000 radio shows a month.

McDougall: It's a dying industry in the United States, but not around the world.

Lyman: That's right. But remember that the United States is a major exporter and our lifestyles influence what other countries eventually consume.

McDougall: Why did you stop cattle ranching 20 years ago?

Lyman: In 1979, when I had 7,000 head of cattle, 12,000 acres of crop and 30 employees, I became paralyzed from the waist down because of a tumor in my spinal cord, and I was told I had a one in a million chance of walking again. My doctor said the tumor cells were stimulated by the chemicals we were using. And that was the first time in my life I really looked seriously at how I was farming. I was buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of chemicals [pesticides, fertilizers, beef hormones and antibiotics] that were killing the birds, the trees, and making the soil sterile. Incredibly, I walked out of the hospital, John, but I walked out a much different individual.

McDougall: Where did things go for you from that point?

Lyman: I knew that what I'd learned at Montana State University was nothing more than brain washing: "better living through chemistry." So I started reading other things. I started out with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and then Frances Moore Lappe and others.

When I told my banker we wanted to become organic farmers, he laughed and said, "You want me to lend you money, you're not going to spend with my other customers--the chemical dealer, the pharmaceutical dealer, the fertilizer dealer? There will never be a day like that."

And so in 1983, I sold most of my farm to pay debts. And I organized Montana farmers and even ran for Congress. In 1987, I started working in Washington, DC for the National Farmers Union, which represents small family farms. After five frustrating years there, I started traveling again and talking to people about clean air, clean food, and clean water.

McDougall: You went a lot further than that. You went from trying to grow clean beef to trying to convince people not to eat beef.

Lyman: When I became an advocate of organic farming, it was for environmental reasons. But then I realized the health reasons. I used to weigh well over 300 pounds. My blood pressure was sky high, and my cholesterol was over 300. I would sit down and have lunch, and I swear to God my nose would bleed.

So I gave up meat. Now in Montana, you're better off caught riding a stolen horse than admitting to somebody you don't eat meat. So I didn't tell anyone, even though I ate just lettuce and dairy products for a year. I lost some weight and my blood pressure and cholesterol came down slightly.

But cutting out all animal products did much more for me than giving up just meat. After I did that, I had more energy, my blood pressure went to normal, I lost 130 pounds, and my cholesterol went from 300 to 135.

McDougall: How'd you get involved with the Humane Society?

Lyman: In 1994, they asked me to run their "Eating with Conscience" campaign. I travel about 100,000 miles a year getting people to ask these questions: Who produced my food? What did they use on it? What's it doing to me, the environment and the animals? What it comes down to, John, is that the way we're producing and eating our food is absolutely not sustainable.

McDougall: It seems logical that the Humane Society would be interested in not eating animal products. How much of the Humane Society can see things from that point of view?

Lyman: The amazing thing is that of the 200 employees in the Humane Society of the U.S., the umbrella organization, 25% of them don't eat any animal products; half don't eat meat. They've increased their membership from 2.5 million in 1993 to 5.8 million members today. So I would say the organization is growing, the awareness is growing and the focus is on doing better.

McDougall: That's all good to say. But there seems to be a big backlash, especially when you see Atkins, who recommends an all-meat diet, on the bestseller list. So really, Howard, where do you think things are going?

Lyman: If you look at the Zone diet and all other fad diets out there, they are telling people that "your bad habits are OK." And people love to hear that.

But, John, look at it like this. Each year in the U.S, 1 million more people give up meat. And ask yourself: If we are not becoming effective, why did the cattlemen sue us? I think the sales of the meat and dairy industries are dropping like a rock. So I think we're winning.

Excerpts from Mad Cowboy by Howard Lyman and Glen Merzer (Scriber, 1998, $23.50)

***Crops grown for feed cattle are allowed to have higher levels of pesticides than crops grown for human consumption.

***About 80% of pesticides are targeted on four crops--corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat--the main constituents of livestock feed.

***Animals store pesticides and other toxic substances in their fat.

***"Extra-lean" beef is 54% fat.

Re-printed with the courtesy of Dr. John McDougall and Howard Lyman
Howard Lyman
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