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THIS COWBOY IS MAD

by Keith Akers

Mad Cowboy. Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat. By Howard F. Lyman, with Glen Merzer. Scribner, 1998. 223 pages, $23.00.

"Mad Cowboy"--a great title for a great new book. If you want the plain truth, Howard Lyman, a cowboy turned vegetarian, will dish it out to you as thick as you can take it. It is at the same time a personal story, a political story, and a primer for the critical food issues of our time. More like a political novel than a "how-to" book, the book takes on an immediacy because Howard Lyman has been on the front lines of food issues all his life. The book begins with an overview of health and environmental issues surrounding meat consumption, but quickly switches to his own story. He tells of his transition from organic foods to chemical pioneer back to organic foods, and from cattle rancher to vegetarian activist, giving attention both to the mad cow problem which propelled him to fame and to the "biotech bullies" (bovine growth hormone, genetic engineering) before returning again to the question of planetary and personal health.

A lot of people who have heard Howard Lyman speak about "mad cow" disease, and have heard his warnings about the "prions" that cannot be destroyed even by ultra-high temperatures, formaldehyde, or pretty much anything else. (So even if you cook the meat thoroughly, or even incinerate it, you’re still at risk for getting mad cow disease.) It’s really scary stuff, and even if you have heard Howard speak about this before, you are going to be even more scared after you finish his book.

But what is really scariest is not the destruction of tropical forests, the deaths of millions due to heart disease, or even the spread of "mad cow" disease to humans in the United States (something which may have already occurred). What is scariest is that so many people in positions of responsibility don’t care, even after the evidence is staring them in the face. The tale of how the British government ignored warning after warning on "mad cow" disease, until finally unquestionable proof emerged that this disease had spread from cows to humans, will send shivers up anyone’s spine. And then, just to show that this is not a British problem, he tells the story of his own encounters with the USDA and the cattle industry in this country.

I had never heard of his collaborator, Glen Merzer, before this book appeared, but if we can judge by the result the collaboration worked well. Nothing of Howard’s style has been lost here; he tells that on one occasion in Washington, D. C. "it was hot enough to make a mosquito sweat," one characteristic phrase among many in the book which I recall from his speeches.

This book will make an impression on anyone who respects common sense and experience. Those who are eating meat should be made aware of the realities of this industry by someone who is certainly in a position to know. But vegetarians will have something to gain from reading this book as well; if nothing else, it should convince vegetarians that we can never write off any meat-eater as hopeless. Some day, they could become a Howard Lyman.