International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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6th European Vegetarian Congress
Bussolengo, Italy, September 21 - 26, 1997

My name is Howard Lyman
Howard Lyman

President of the IVU

My name is Howard Lyman. I am the President of the International Vegetarian Union. This morning I'm going to do my own introduction. I could make it the floweriest and most wonderful that I have ever had in my life, but, on second thoughts, this morning I intend to talk to you about what I think is the most important thing in the world: vegetarianism. We are winning! The fantastic thing about vegetarianism is when you look back to the last time somebody came up to you and said: "I am eating more red meat!" You don't hear that anymore. The fact is that industries supporting animal slaughter are now just hanging on by their fingertips. What we see now in front of us is that vegetarianism is on the move. I want to talk to you today about a case I know well - me! I'm a fourth generation farmer, and own a ranch in Montana. I had 7,000 head of cattle, thousands of acres of arable land and as many as 30 employees. I can remember back to the first time I ever wrote a cheque for a million dollars. I looked at it and I said, "I have really arrived. I'm at the top of the tree." I thought I was the farmer of the year. The fact is I had some events in my life that changed what I'm about. One of the changes is that back in 1979 I was paralysed from the waist down, I could not walk. The doctors told me that I had one chance in a million of ever walking again if the tumour on my spinal cord was on the inside of the cord. Now when somebody gives you the odds of one in a million, what they are really saying to you is pick out the wheelchair you like because you will be in it the rest of your life.

At that time many things went through my mind: I didn't happen to think about how I owned seven combines worth $150,000 each, or how I had twenty tractors and thirty trucks. What I thought about was why I became a farmer in the first place. Birds, trees and living soil. I was buying hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of chemicals. I was killing the birds, killing the trees and turning the soil into something that looked like asbestos. Being paralysed from the waist down forced me to take a look at what kind of a person I was going to be for the rest of my life. Was I going to be an invalid, sitting in a wheelchair feeling sorry for myself or could I take my life and make it amount to something? If I were to do that, if I had to make my life amount to something, what would that something be? That night, fully believing that I would never walk again, I decided that for the rest of my life I would do everything that I knew how to make the environment what it was when I was a kid, with birds and trees and living soil. Now I wasn't sure how to do it: I thought maybe less use of chemicals and more crop rotation. But all this had nothing to do with being vegetarian. As you know, I come from Great Falls, Montana, which is not exactly a hotbed of vegetarianism. My hometown newspaper put my picture on the front page. It said: "Montana's most famous vegetarian". I picked up the phone, I called them up and I said, "Why don't you tell it like it is? I'm Montana's only vegetarian!" They answered, "That's not true - we know another vegetarian who works with us on the paper, so we know there are at least two." What we do everyday has an enormous impact on what's happening in the world. The fork is the most dangerous weapon in the arsenal of Homo sapiens. They took me up and operated on me for 12 hours. Tumour was not only on the inside of the spinal cord but also under it. They could not lift the spinal cord up to get to the tumour. All they could do was pick a nerve and cut it, hoping the tumour was attached like a fish on a line. They pulled out a tumour about the size of my thumb. I walked out of the hospital after a one-in-a-million operation.

Every morning I get up and put my feet on the floor, and feel like the luckiest person in the world. As I walked out of the hospital in 1979, I realised that what I learned all my life, at university where I got an agriculture degree, being taught about what was called "better living through chemistry" - I realised it was all absolutely wrong. I committed myself to trying, for the rest of my life, to learn what I could do to get back to where it was when I was a kid, when we had birds and trees and living soil. It took me a long time before I understood that the fork was involved in that decision. When I got to that point, I was a person weighing about three hundred pounds, with sky-high blood pressure and a cholesterol reading over three hundred. I would sit down and have lunch and my nose would bleed. I knew I was in trouble. I wondered what could I do to change things. I heard about vegetarianism. Now remember in Montana there were only two vegetarians. Vegetarianism was not real popular over there, but I thought I needed to do something to change my life, so I decided to become the world's worst vegetarian ever. Lettuce and dairy products: for one year that was my diet. During that time I lost some weight, and my blood pressure and cholesterol came down slightly. I thought that if I could do that as the world's worst vegetarian, just think what I could do if I were a vegan. Then I thought, "Oh God! Man cannot live by lettuce alone!" I never met a bean I didn't like. So it was lettuce and beans, then whole-wheat bread. Then I thought of Thanksgiving dinner, since everything for Thanksgiving dinner could be made without animal products except for the turkey. From 1979 up to today I've lost over 100 pounds in weight, my blood pressure is normal and my cholesterol reading has gone down from 300 to 135. The reason I'm standing in front of you today is that I went vegetarian. The reason I'm alive is because I cared enough to look at what I was putting on my fork.

I'm the first cattleman to be president of the IVU. You know, the cattlemen's associations around the world for years and years have always told vegetarians, "But you don't understand." I say to the cattlemen today, "What is it that I don't understand?" I've fed more pigs, fed and milked more cows, been in more blizzards, baled more hay than anyone else. They can say to me what they want, but they cannot say that I don't understand. I never met a hamburger that was worth dying for. So I now travel around the world and I talk to people about the fork, about the future, the future of our children and grandchildren. I talk to them about the fact that we are doubling the world's population every 40 to 50 years. We are not doubling the amount of food out there, so if we are going to have a future for our children and grandchildren, it will depend on how diet changes worldwide. Vegetarianism is not the solution for world population, but it is the only window of opportunity that we have, since we change the world by our actions. If you walk into a room and there are ten groups of people, and nine out of the ten groups are angry and shouting at each other, and one of them is over in the corner laughing and having a good time, which one do you want to join? We too, as a movement, need to get away from being angry, but we cannot share it with people if we cannot get them to ask, "Are you one of those "V" people?" Until they ask, no amount of talking will do any good. I will give you an example. My wife and I have been married 29 years, and I will also say that for 29 years her mother has lived with us. 29 years of my mother-in-law has been a test. When I decided to become a vegetarian, I lost over 100 pounds, my blood pressure came down, my cholesterol came down, I knew I had the answer to my health problems. I could hardly wait to share that with my friends and family. I was even considering sharing it with my mother-in-law. I invited her for Thanksgiving dinner. I said to her that turkey would be available for her. My mother-in-law came into the house, went to the oven and to the refrigerator: no turkey. She felt I had let her down. I took her to the back yard where I had a live turkey. I told her that if she wanted turkey for dinner she would have to kill it herself. That turkey survived. Even on that occasion I learned not to be angry.

Therefore, if we want to change the world, we must do it with the full cooperation of others, that is with a smile on our faces. We need to sew the seed by becoming ambassadors of information. Remember that each and everyone of us operates in a pool of people who may not even listen or talk to you. But if you get a new blouse or a car, they'll know about it because they are watching. One solution to the problem could be to get a thick book on vegetarianism, take it to work with you, leave it on the desk - you don't even have to read it. Sooner or later some of those people will come along, they'll flick through that book and they'll ask you what it's about. You might answer that by reading it, it's possible to learn how to remove 91% of potential carcinogens and toxins from your diet and also how to live 15 years longer. They will look at you and ask, "Are you one of those V people?" At this point, you can talk to them about the reasons for your vegetarian choice - but until they ask you the question, it means they're not ready. Never forget that the most potent statement in the world that you can make every day is what you put on your fork. For example, you get together with your friends and they would like you to join them at McDonalds, but you kindly refuse the invitation. As soon as they ask you why, it will be possible to explain all the background information they may need. This is the real opportunity you've got to speak out; remember to do that with kindness and in a spirit of cooperation. Almost every person in this room today at one time was a carnivore and has learned the lesson. We have evolved and what we need to do is to share that message. Never in the history of the world we have had fewer trees, less topsoil, fewer fish, less clean water, less rainforest. Every natural resource in the world today is less than when you were born. We are going down that slippery slope at a phenomenal rate. If there is to be a future for our children and grandchildren, it will depend on people like those here today. Remember Gandhi's aphorism: "Your job is not to save the world. Your job is to save yourself". When somebody says that you're not going to be able to change the world on your own just by going vegetarian, your answer will be that you know a guy, a fourth generation farmer, a rancher, who travels around the world talking to people about being a vegetarian. In fact last year I was on 4,000 radio stations, 300 television stations, I did radio and television in over 200 countries. I gave hundreds of lectures. The thing that I wanted to leave with those people was the most important message of all; if I could do it, anyone can do it.

We have the opportunity to be better equipped to share that information about vegetarianism with our families, our friends and yes, even our mothers-in-law: we are winning. Our main job is not to turn them into vegans, but to get those carnivores out there to understand that every bite of meat not taken all over the world means greater opportunities for our children and our grandchildren. It ends up with more animals living, so let's do it with a smile on our face. And when somebody walks up to you and says, "Are you one of those V people?" you look at them, smile and say, "You'd better believe it! And I did it because it's good for me, it's good for the animals, it's good for the environment and - most of all - it guarantees a brighter future for the generations to come."


Q: A lot of people are cutting out red meat but most of them when they do that, turn to fish and chicken. Does that really end up with more animal suffering or less?

A: Well, if somebody comes to me and says: you can only take one meat out of my diet: which would it be? I would recommend taking out chicken first. The reason is: if you go to a factory chicken operation and look at it, you will find that the feed looks like it's coming from a pharmacy and not a feed mill. The fact of it is that in many chicken operations today they take spent laying hens, grind them up alive and feed them back to other chickens. Almost every factory chicken operation in the world today collects the manure and feeds it back to the chickens. If somebody gives up red meat, fine, that's a start, but remember education. People must learn that, for example, the fish's job is to clean the water whereas we've turned our waters into cesspools. What would you do if somebody invited you over to their house and said, "We're going to have a fish fry," and they took you in the back yard and lifted the lid on the septic tank and said, "Pick out the one you want, we've been keeping them fresh for you?" That's exactly what's happening with the fish that are out there. That's the kind of information we'd need to share with people asking you whether fish and chicken are all right to eat. Before you know it, they'll be vegans.

Q: How does Howard, as a cattleman, make his living?

A: I am no longer a cattleman. I sold the farm in 1983 and I kept my great grandfather's homestead in order to turn it into a wildlife sanctuary. Today, I travel around the world as a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States running a campaign called Eating With Conscience. What I do today is talk to people, asking questions like: who produced your food? What did they use on it? What's it doing to you, the environment and the animals? In the last few years that I've been doing this, up to last year, we ended up reaching the ears of over one billion people in that campaign. Why is there more cancer, more heart disease? Why have we less rain forest, less clean air, less clean water, less trees, less fish, why? The fork! The fork is indeed the most dangerous weapon in the arsenal of Homo sapiens. Getting people to understand that is like planting the seed., so that all become aware, little by little, of the fact that they can do something through a common will to put their shoulder to the wheel of the wagon that has got stuck. I bet we will have a better world by the time we next come together.

- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)