Lecture Notes: Howard Lyman's case against cattle | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: Howard Lyman's case against cattle 

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Howard Lyman blew into Chicago on a snowy March weekend with a message: Cows are ruining the world. The former Montana rancher took the stage at Amundsen High School in the middle of a Saturday-morning blizzard to talk about the cattle crisis and what we can do about it. For starters, he wants us to cut the amount of beef we eat by 50 percent and hand out leaflets at our local McDonald's. If we do, we'll be part of the Beyond Beef campaign, which spun off from a book with the same title by Jeremy Rifkin. Lyman is executive director of the Beyond Beef campaign. It has become his personal crusade.

The complaint against cattle goes like this: While millions of humans are starving, the world's 1.3 billion bovines are consuming a huge portion of the earth's food and water. They are also impoverishing the soil by overgrazing, polluting water supplies with their waste, and contributing to the greenhouse effect every time they belch. When we eat them, their fat-and-chemical-laden flesh gives us heart disease, strokes, and cancer.

Lyman seems like an unlikely recruiter for this cause. A beefy, ham-handed 54-year-old in a gray business suit, he looks more like the cattleman he used to be than the vegetarian and environmental zealot he's become. But our national appetite for public confession is almost as great as our appetite for top sirloin, and this reformed feedlot operator--who had a personal crisis and saw the error of his ways--is highly effective.

"I'm a fourth-generation agriculturalist," Lyman says, "raised on what I considered to be the finest piece of property in the world. When I went to college, I knew I was going to take that small family farm and turn it into an agribusiness. I learned about herbicides, pesticides, hormones, medication; graduated in agriculture and chemistry. I was going to become an agricultural entrepreneur.

"I went home and did exactly that. I had a thousand cows and calves, a five-thousand-head feedlot, and thousands of acres of crops. My operating expense was one million dollars, my inventory five to seven million. I was the Donald Trump of agriculture.

"Then, in 1979, I was paralyzed from the waist down by a tumor on my spinal cord. The doctors told me I had one chance in a million to walk again. It was like someone slapped me in the face with a two-by-four. Lying flat on my back in a hospital, two things kept going through my mind. One of them was what the farm looked like when I was a kid, when I thought it was the Garden of Eden. The other was what it looked like after 20 years of my chemical addiction. We had killed off most of the trees with weed spray. We'd eliminated the insects with insecticide; when the insects were gone, the birds were gone. We removed the rodents; the coyotes disappeared. We had killed the angleworms with herbicide and what we had left was soil that looked like we imported it from Mars.

"I was taking more out of that farm than I was putting back. I was doing something that was totally unsustainable. I said, whether I walk or I'm in a wheelchair, I'm going to commit myself to do whatever I can for the next generation."

After a 12-hour operation, Lyman did walk. He sold his farm in 1983, and went to work for the Montana Farmers Union and then for the National Farmers Union. He spent five years as a National Farmers Union lobbyist on Capitol Hill before hooking up with Rifkin.

The Beyond Beef spiel is laced with a head-spinning barrage of statistics. They say: We're killing 100,000 cows every day. One-half of all the fresh water used in America is used for animals. A quarter pound of hamburger from South America costs 55 square feet of rain forest. Ninety percent of the surface water in Iowa is contaminated with agricultural chemicals. Half of the antibiotics produced in the United States are used in livestock production. In the last 200 years we have used up 75 percent of our topsoil. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. If beef weren't subsidized, it would sell for $30 per pound. Seven of ten Americans are dying from something associated with their diet.

Beyond Beef aims to reduce beef consumption by 50 percent, replace it with grains, fruits, and vegetables, and move us to a totally organic food supply. That, Lyman says, would make the family farm viable again, since "only the small farmer can produce beef and other farm products humanely and sustainably." The first step is the McDonald's protest, scheduled for April 17. Beyond Beef wants McDonald's to put a veggieburger on their menu and spend 25 percent of their advertising budget promoting it. They plan to have a team of people at every one of the nearly 300 McDonald'ses in the Chicago area. A spokesperson for McDonald's says the campaign is a publicity stunt to sell Rifkin's controversial book.

There are aspects of Lyman's tale that didn't make it into his talk at Amundsen. He planned a golf course and housing development for part of his land, ran for Congress, was under threat of foreclosure and eviction when he sold the family farm. Back in Montana, the Farmers Union folk are appalled at any campaign that calls for a reduction in beef consumption. But this much seems consistent: the fire in Lyman's belly burns hottest for the multinational corporations he says have a near-monopoly in beef production and are squeezing the family farmer out of business. When we've all switched to organically, sustainably raised products, Lyman says, we won't be buying them from Con-Agra, IBP, or Cargill.

Howard Lyman will be in town again next week, recruiting volunteers for the McDonald's offensive. He'll speak Thursday, April 1, at 5:30 at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; and at 7:30 at Francis Parker School, Clark and Webster. Both lectures are free. He'll also appear at a benefit for the Beyond Beef campaign Friday, April 2, from 6 to 9 at Cairo, 720 N. Wells. Tickets for the benefit are $10 per person and include a vegetarian buffet. Membership in the Beyond Beef campaign, usually $30, is being offered at Lyman's lectures for $20, with a copy of Rifkin's book as a bonus. It is not necessary to buy a membership to participate in the McDonald's demonstrations. Call 312-472-6383 for more information.

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