There was a certain dream-like quality to our fringe event this morning, not least because of the early start. I think it’s fair to say that even a few years ago, having the Farming Minister join a Vegan Society fringe panel at a Conservative Party Conference would have been unheard of.
So we were delighted when Rt Hon George Eustice MP accepted our invitation to talk about sustainable and healthy food systems in Birmingham this week. There were several tense minutes at the start of the event when it looked like he was going to be a no-show, but it seems even Cabinet Ministers are prevented from bringing suitcases to Conference, hence the delay.
We’ve seen some bold moves from the Conservative Party in terms of environmental protection and animal welfare, and we hoped that by engaging with our event, they might be encouraged to be even bolder by acknowledging the crucial role that plant-based agriculture plays in a sustainable and healthy food system (and with that a move away from animal agriculture).
The event was chaired by Sam Richards from the Conservative Environment Network, who emphasised the importance of food and farming in tackling climate change and the timeliness of the meeting just a week ahead of the second reading of the Draft Agriculture Bill.
I then spoke about the well-documented environmental impact of animal agriculture and The Vegan Society’s “Grow Green” campaign which attempts to provide a solution with plant protein farming.
Of course, the Farming Minister’s attendance was quite a coup, but I certainly wouldn't want to diminish the importance and contribution of our other panellists.
Next up was Duncan Milwain, Chair of the Real Junk Food Project – a ‘pay what you can afford’ service using entirely waste food. Duncan decried the fact that one third of all food is wasted and called for a big rethink on food.
Dr Pamela Mason, a researcher, author and nutritionist called for a greater focus on public health within agriculture policy, including policies to promote more pulse production in Britain, very much in line with our Grow Green asks.
The Minister himself steered clear of supporting any sort of reduction in animal agriculture but instead talked about different approaches to farm husbandry and encouraged the production of healthy and sustainable food, in line with the Eatwell Guide.
Renowned environmentalist, Tony Juniper, spoke about the wide and varied impacts of our current farming system and branded the increase in meat and dairy worrying. At WWF they are concerned about agriculture being the biggest problem for biodiversity.
Conservative Parliamentary Candidate (and vegan) Isabel Sigmac talked about veganism not being a left-wing concern and the need to push animal welfare further up the policy agenda.
Questions from our small but engaged audience ranged from the role of lab-grown meat, the different impacts of different farming systems, whether labelling has a role to play, how to consider the impact on rural communities if farming changes, and an interesting one from KFC about how to make vegan options cheap and tasty.
Our panel were broadly agreed that food production needs to encourage more sustainable and healthy food behaviours, and that things were moving (albeit too slowly for some of us) in the right direction.
We're hoping to meet with the Minister again in the coming months to elaborate on the role of plant-based farming in a greener future, so watch this space!
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