Andrew's Reviews > Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat

Mad Cowboy by Howard F. Lyman
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Until last week, I think I was one of the few remaining vegans in North America who hasn't read “Mad Cowboy”. Lyman and Merzer's book provides an interesting take on the reasons for being vegan, and may be one of the most compelling books on the topic ever written. If you have never read anything about the health and environmental costs of eating meat, this would be a great place to start. If you are already a vegan, or have read lots of books about the reasons for veganism, you might not find much new information here. But you will see that information from a different angle than any other book on the market, and I think “Mad Cowboy” makes the case as strongly, or stronger, than any book out there.

“Mad Cowboy” starts with the story of Howard Lyman and Oprah Winfrey being taken to court by the cattle industry for “food disparagement”, an absolutely insane law (on the books in 13 US states) that actually allows food producers to sue critics of their agricultural practices for libel. How these laws do not run afoul of the First Amendment is beyond me. But in any case, Lyman and Oprah were sued because Lyman had come on the show and described the common practice of feeding animal byproducts to cows and other farm animals, and discussed his concerns about the risks this practice posed to human health. Although Lyman and Oprah won their case, it had a chilling effect on free speech and many people, including Oprah herself, became more cautious when talking about food. Lyman, with much less to lose than Oprah, wrote “Mad Cowboy”.

A former intensive factory farmer himself, Lyman gave up on the cattle industry after he recognized what a deleterious effect it was having on the environment and his own health. While he had inherited a traditional family farm, he had turned his farm into a chemical and pharmaceutical operation that, despite being increasingly reliant on the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs, was losing money and ravaging the land. When he realized this, Lyman became a vegan and became a lobbyist for family and organic farms, as well as vegetarianism. “Mad Cowboy” is his comprehensive expose of the modern farming industry.

About a third of “Mad Cowboy” is about the human health risks associated with the factory farming industry as it exists today. Lyman is especially concerned about mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). He details the government mishandling of the BSE outbreak in England that led to dozens of humans contracting the fatal human variant (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). Lyman predicted that it was only a matter of time before a similar outbreak occurs in North America. Lyman does a great job discussing the scientific and political issues surrounding Mad Cow Disease (although, having been written in 1996, some of the scientific information in “Mad Cowboy” is a bit dated by now). Government regulators often work closely with, and protect the interests of, food producers rather than consumers, so it is not a huge stretch to suggest that someday there will be a similar outbreak elsewhere in the world. Conversely, Lyman also discusses the many documented health benefits of vegetarianism, and gives some decent advice about making the switch.

Another good chunk of the book is concerned with the environmental impact of cattle farming, both with respect to intensive factory farming, and to grazing. I found his perspective on ranching particularly interesting; intuitively it seems like a less harmful method of farming than chemical and antibiotic laced feedlot farming. In actual fact, it is a hugely destructive process that has obliterated huge swaths of ecosystem in the western states, and threatens plains, forests, and even deserts all around the world.

The writing style of “Mad Cowboy” is simple and straightforward. There were several times when I laughed out loud at how strongly a statement was worded; Lyman pulls no punches, especially when discussing the links between eating meat and heart disease. Only occasionally does he seem to slip into the somewhat forced “down-home good humour of a son of the soil” that is advertised on the dust jacket. At a few other times, technical words are undefined and overused (the word “riparian” is used half a dozen times on a single page). These are minor complaints about a book that overall is written very well. “Mad Cowboy” is an easy and fast read, and can probably be read in a couple of sittings.

One of the things I found most interesting about “Mad Cowboy” is the rhetorical strength of Lyman's argument that comes from the fact that he used to be a Montana cattle rancher. If the exact same information was presented by a lifetime vegan from San Fransisco or New York City, it could be much more easily dismissed. By making clear his farming origins throughout the book, Lyman's arguments seem to carry extra weight. He has been there, seen the effects of contemporary farming with his own eyes, and had the integrity and guts to put his livelihood on the line in an attempt to make the world a better place. I hope that readers of “Mad Cowboy” will try to do the same.
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