June 1825, 1998
interview by Vance Lehmkuhl
A fourth-generation cattle rancher, Howard Lyman has had plenty of experience with pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics and bulk slaughter. In the 1980s he gave up the business and in 1990 became a vegetarian, partially because of his familiarity with USDA-certified meat. In 1996, he appeared on Oprah and warned that the United States could easily see a devastating outbreak of Mad Cow disease, spurring a "food disparagement" lawsuit against him and Oprah Winfrey that, if nothing else, put the "Mad Cow" threat in the headlines for weeks. Lyman's new book, Mad Cowboy (Scribner), chronicles his journey from Montana cowboy to president of the International Vegetarian Union, and in the process debunks the propaganda of the beef and dairy industries. The 59-year-old will be a featured speaker at Vegetarian Summerfest in Johnstown, PA (July 8-12). He was on the phone from California for this interview, taking a break from his book tour.
Do you think Mad Cow disease will show up in the United States in the next two years?
I'd say right now Mad Cow is in the U.S. The question is when are we going to confirm that we have it, and I would say within the next five years there's no doubt in my mind that'll happen. I think it will not only be in cows, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it first confirmed in pigs.
Why do you suppose the cattle ranchers thought the lawsuit was a good idea?
I think it was people who have more money than have common sense, and they sat around and drank whiskey and talked to each other about how great the industry is and how these people were attacking the basic fabric of the flag. With this closed society of people blowing smoke at each other, the bigger the lies got, the more they started believing them. [The lawsuit] was the worst thing in the world that could have happened for the industry, but it was the greatest thing that could have happened for educating the American people.
You make a parallel between the tobacco and cattle industries. Do you foresee a public backlash against the meat industry?
The first study that showed that smoking caused cancer was in 1913, and here we are in 1998 with the public finally taking action. [Things are] happening much quicker with meat than they ever did with tobacco, and I think that within your lifetime you'll see meat will be labeled as a dangerous product.
Do you have any tips or advice for people who want to kick the habit? I mean, just reading your book made me very uncomfortable with milk, but how can I give up milk and cookies?
Okay, this is coming from a person who was raised on a dairy farm, who thought milk was nature's most perfect food, that milk did a body good. If someone said to me they're willing to give up just one part of their diet, the first thing I would take out is dairy products. I believe that there are more Americans having an adverse reaction to dairy products than any other product that's out there. But the best advice I can give anybody for changing their diet is before you do it, educate yourself, because the easiest way to fail in a diet change is not to know why or how. We have a whole lot of teenage girls who love animals and become the world's worst vegetarians[eating] Twinkies and chipsand that's a recipe for disaster.
Speaking of teenage girls, is it true you were the driving force behind Lisa Simpson becoming a vegetarian in 1995?
Well, "driving force" I don't know, but I was probably the catalyst at the time that made it happen. I did a lecture at Cassandra Peterson's living room (she's better known as "Elvira"). One of her friends said to me afterwards: "My name is David Mirkin. I'm the executive producer of The Simpsons. If I put 40 writers in a room, would you talk to them?" I said sure. So he did, and we had a wonderful eveningI mean, some of the brightest minds you ever saw in your life. He then flew to England and got together with Paul and Linda McCartney, and they did the show on Lisa becoming a vegetarian. Many of the things that you see in that show, at least to me, are direct offshoots of what I had said in the lecture. David Mirkin, on the night I first met him at Elvira's, was a carnivore. Today he is my friend, and he is a vegan.
Do you, as a former cowboy, see vegetarian and gender concerns overlapping at all?
Yeah, the meat industry has always been pitched to the macho image, the idea being if you're the man who's bringing home the paycheck making these demands for meat, then the "little woman" will scurry around and fulfill your every wish. But the cattle industry has missed the boat, because where the future is right now is the working women, it's fast food, it's the more healthy items. When I went to high school, when we picked up our date to go to dinner, we didn't even ask her where she wanted to go. We just said, "We're going to McDonald's." Do you think that sells today? The entire culture has changed, and if you end up with that macho bullshit image today, I'll tell you what: You're going to be a one-time date for almost any girl in America.
One comes away from your book with the sense that the meat industry is not just misguided but untenable, that it simply can't go on the way it is, dominated by agribusiness.
I think there's no doubt that this is a dinosaur industry. I think we will always have a niche market for meat products, but in a world where we're doubling the population every 40 to 50 years, there is no way we can continue putting 70 calories of energy [from feed] into something that puts one calorie of meat on the plate. With this industry, for anyone who's in it today, my advice is, get out while the getting out is good.