Embattled Vegan Fights America's Meat Machine

"It's not what we know that gets us in trouble," says Howard Lyman, director of the Humane Society's Eating With A Conscience campaign. What Lyman worries about are the things that most people believe to be true but that are, in fact, myths. And Lyman does more than worry about such myths--particularly if they concern the way we produce and consume food. For more than a decade, he has traveled the country eleven months a year to bring his message about the health risks of an animal-based diet to the American public.Lyman estimates he traveled more than 100,000 miles last year and appeared on hundreds of radio and television stations and in front of thousands of live audiences. It was one of those appearances--on The Oprah Winfrey Show-- that earned Lyman the emnity of the powerful Texas cattle industry and resulted in his being named as a defendant in a multimillion dollar lawsuit based on the infamous "Veggie-libel" law [see sidebar]. Lyman's trip to Cincinnati earlier this month, sponsored by EarthSave, was anything but laid back. Between a speech at Good Samaritan Hospital and a sold-out vegan dinner/Earth Save fundraiser, he managed to squeeze in a trip to Kaldi's, an inner city vegetarian restauraunt, for lunch and an interview with Everybody s News.A "rusty old vegan," as he introduced himself to our waitress, Lyman holds passionate opinions about the consumption of animal products, which he sees as a hazard to human health and an ethical abomination, He devoted much of his statistic-laden speech at Good Samaritan to the issue. According to his figures, 75 percent of all the carcinogens eaten or inhaled by humans and 95 percent of the deadly chemical dioxin come from meat, milk and eggs. Most of the chemicals used on fruits and vegetables can be washed off, but farm animals consume them and store them in their fat. Then we eat the fat. Lyman describes a study, funded by the dairy industry, in which college-age women were given three glasses of milk a day, to measure the effect on their bones. To the surprise and dismay of the sponsors, the women actually had less bone density at the end of the study than at the beginning. The reason: protein overload. According to Lyman, the ideal human diet would derive 10 percent of its calories from protein, 10 percent from fat, and 80 percent from carbohydrates, whereas the average American now gets 40 percent of his calories from fat, 40 percent from protein and only 20 percent from carbohydrates. The excess protein is deposited in the kidneys, which cannot tolerate the amino acids proteins are made of. To neutralize the amino acids, the kidneys call on the closest available base, calcium, which must be taken from the bones and which the body cannot replace quickly enough, even with megadoses of milk."It's called the Standard American Diet, SAD," Lyman says, referring to the regular doses of Big Macs and macaroni and cheese that millions of us live on, "and it is sad." So are the results. Half of all Americans die of heart disease, whereas in countries where people eat less meat than the average American house cat, Lyman notes, the figure is only 4 percent. Giving up red meat in favor of chicken and fish has become common among the health conscious, due to increasing awareness of the risks of fatty foods and press coverage of questionable safety precautions in processing plants and restaurants. But Lyman advises people to avoid both chicken ("because it has more cholesterol") and fish ("because sea animals take in all of the pollutants that find their way into water").Getting Radicalized Down On The FarmWhen Lyman calls today's chemical-based farming methods unsustainable, he is speaking about something he knows first hand. Born in Montana, the son, grandson and great-grandson of cattle ranchers, Lyman fell in love with farming at an early age. He graduated from Montana State University in 1961 with a degree in agriculture and returned to the family farm educated in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He achieved tremendous financial success as, over his father's objections, he turned a family-owned organic farm into a corporate chemical-based farming system with 30 employees and more than 7,000 head of cattle. And, as the ranch grew, Lyman discovered he was destroying the very things that made him want to be a farmer in the first place. "I saw the organic soil go from a living, productive base to sterile, chemical- saturated monocultural ground because of my so-called modern methods," he recalls. Now, he is consumed by his quest to see that today's farmers do not make the same mistakes he did. Lyman's misgivings about chemical farming were transformed to zeal after his personal health crisis in 1979, when he was paralyzed from the waist down by a tumor on his spinal cord. Doctors gave him million-to-one odds of ever walking again, but he told himself that whatever the outcome of his surgery, "I would dedicate the rest of my life to doing what I believed to be right." Ironically, the illness that confined him to a wheelchair also inspired him to make the transformation from rancher to vegetarian-activist-on-the-go. In 1983, Lyman sold most of his farm (which remains an active cattle ranch), keeping 126 acres for a wildlife sanctuary. Then he began working for the interests of small farmers. In 1987, he became a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union and went to Washington, DC, a town, Lyman says, that lives by its own version of the Golden Rule: i.e., "Them that have the gold, make the rules." The frustrations of lobbying on behalf of the unwealthy made him skeptical about government's willingness to step on the toes of corporate agriculture, even for the sake of public health."I spent one day in Washington last year," he says. "Probably a wasted day." He became a vegetarian in 1984, and seven years later became a vegan (one who eats no animal-based foods, including eggs and cheese). Since 1992, he has worked directly to advance the cause of vegetarianism, starting as Executive Director of the Beyond Beef Campaign, and becoming Director of the Eating With Conscience Campaign in 1994. Modern, large-scale agriculture, with its short-sighted emphasis on high yields because has already robbed this country of seventy-five percent of the topsoil that was here 300 years ago, and more is washed away with every rainstorm, Lyman laments. A common practice among corn farmers, for example, is to plow in October after harvesting is complete, which leaves the soil exposed. With no root growth to protect it, that soil gets carried away by the rain and snow of winter.But Lyman says the trend is reversible. He tells the story of a German farmer who noticed that in his fields, he could only dig his hand wrist-deep into the soil, while he remembered that when he was growing up, he could put his entire arm in the soil of his grandparents' garden. In search of a solution, he took up composting, using waste from his farm and turning it into soil rich in the minerals and microorganisms needed for plant growth. Eventually, he could stick his arm into the ground up to his shoulder. After the Chernobyl disaster, when the nuclear fallout moved west into Germany, his was the only produce in the vicinity that did not become radioactive, because natural processes in the soil protected it. Lyman would replace the current produce system with what he calls a producer-consumer alliance that he says would enable city dwellers to answer three critical questions about their food: "Who produced it? What's in it? What is it doing to me and to the environment?" Lyman thinks that, given the chance, most people would pay more for organically grown produce, and that there already is a movement toward greater choice in fruit and vegetable shopping. Rejecting scepticism about the commercial viability of organic food, he points out that sustainable farming has grown 25 percent per year for the past six years, and that there are15,000 more farmers' markets this year than last. The former advocate for small farmers says that family farmers must, however, consider profits.Organic corn sells for one dollar per bushel more than chemically grown, and organic soybeans sell for twice the going rate. Though yields on organic farms may be lower, particularly on former chemical farms that have been stripped of topsoil, minerals and micro-organisms, Lyman contends that sustainable farming can be very profitable for the small farmer. "[Organic produce] is no longer a niche market," he insists. "In fact, the largest organic farm in the world is Gallo wine. They farm naturally not for environmental reasons, but to put out a better quality product." How would Lyman replace, naturally, the chemical pesticides used to deal with insects and parasites that can devastate crops? First of all, he says, 65 percent of all insects are our friends. In another one of Lyman's farm fables, he tells how an organic walnut farmer in California beat aphids by appeasing them.Using "modern" methods, most walnut farmers in the area stripped their orchards of grass so that they could shake their trees and pick up the walnuts mechanically. They also had a tremendous aphid problem, having to spray ten times a year or more. The organic farmer, however, kept his grass and put canvas over it before shaking his trees -and he never had a problem with aphids. Apparently, he was the only one who knew that aphids would rather live in grass than walnut trees. As Lyman puts it, common sense is a very uncommon commodity. Lyman, the Humane Society's self-described "grass-roots rabble-rouser" and "kick-ass populist" says that his ultimate mission is to "stimulate people to thinking" about their own eating choices by living his life as an example. In this regard, Lyman says he embraces Ghandi's view: "Your job is not to save the world. Your job is to save yourself." As he follows that avocation, the "rusty old vegan" from Minnesota is a study in contradictions. A successful cattleman who is being sued for telling the world about the health risks of current cattle-farming methods, Lyman is darkly cynical about the "sheep" who get their nutritional information from dairy-industry advertising, yet bouyantly optimistic in his belief that when people realize the dangers of today's farming practices, they will demand a change."We can do better," he says, "and we can do it right now."Sidebar OneMad cow disease, "Veggie Libel" and the "Oprah" lawsuitHis true passion is organic farming, but the issue that brought Howard Lyman recent national notoriety is mad cow disease. In April of last year, he appeared on "Oprah" to discuss the risk of the disease technically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE appearing in the United States. That risk stems from a practice Lyman himself used when he was a rancher grinding up dead cows and sheep and feeding them to livestock [see "How Now, Downed Cow," EN 460]. It is a cheap and easy way to dispose of dead animals and give the cattle a protein supplement, but, as Lyman told Winfrey, if only one of [the ground-up] animals has mad cow disease, it has the potential to affect thousands. Winfrey replied that "it has just stopped me from eating another burger." Winfrey, who has the power to turn books into bestsellers overnight, can also have a dramatic impact on the futures market. The day after the show aired, the price of beef plummeted, and by the end of the month, it had dropped from $.62 to $.55 per pound.Two Texas cattlemen, one of whom claims he lost $6.7 million, are now suing Lyman, Winfrey, her production company, Harpo Productions Inc., and her distributor, King World Productions, for $20 million under a new "anti- degradation" statute that makes it illegal to disparage the state's agricultural products falsely. Critics of such legislation call these statutes, now on the books of more than a dozen states, "Veggie Libel" bills and contend thay have a chilling effect on First Amendment freedoms and the public's right to know [see "Veggie Libel," EN 438]. Not so, says Jim Buchy, the Republican who represents Ohio's 84th House district in the state legislature and is the sponsor of a similar law in Ohio. Buchy told Everybody s News "there is no chilling effect on First Amendment freedoms from the anti-disparagement bill. The burden of proof is on the guy in Texas to prove that there has been disparagement. If not, he has no case.What the law does, simply, is to give a potential remedy to the agricultural industry that they didn't have before. Without the antidisparagement bill, this suit could not have been filed." Precisely the point, say environmentalists. Lyman points out that whether or not the ranchers have a case under the law, they can achieve their goal of "making people think twice" before expressing concerns about agricultural practices simply by harassing a few prominent activists. Lyman adds that his case could be the first test of the constitutionality of the "veggie libel" law. Meanwhile, in response to the public concern about BSE, the FDA issued a regulation, which took effect early this month, banning the feeding of most kinds of mammalian protein to ruminant animals such as cows and sheep. According to the FDA the new rules still allow "the use of products believed to pose a minimal risk of BSE transmission," including blood, gelatin, milk and "protein derived solely from swine and equine sources," which "are excluded because these animals are not known to have transmissible spongiform encephalopathies."

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