A vegan voice in parliament

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Tom Kuehnel interviews Kerry McCarthy, vegan Labour MP at the House of Commons, on her road to veganism and how we can push the issue through at parliament.

Kerry in parliamentThe Labour Member of Parliament for Bristol East, Kerry McCarthy is a long-term vegan who champions animal rights and vegan living in parliament. Kerry served as the Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She serves on many parliamentary groups, being vice-chair of our All Party Parliamentary Group on Vegetarianism and Veganism, Secretary for the Animal Welfare APPG, Chair of the Food Waste APPG and vice-chair of the Fruit and Vegetable Farmers APPG.

Kerry regularly speaks in parliament on issues regarding animal welfare, sustainable farming, public health and how these topics are interlinked. To mark World Vegan Day in 2011, she invited fellow MPs to become vegan for the day, and organised a debate on the role of plant-based diets and sustainable farming in tackling hunger, obesity and global climate change. She also hosted a parliamentary event to celebrate the International Year of Pulses, which The Vegan Society attended.

Here Kerry shares her transition to veganism, and her views on implementing plant-based solutions on parliament.

When and why did you go vegan?

I became vegetarian at the age of 16 for ethical reasons. One of my younger sisters, Emma, followed suit a few years later and subsequently became vegan. I got talking to her about the treatment of calves in milk production and how day-old chicks are killed as part of egg production, and realised the inconsistency of my position. So, one December I decided that my New Year’s resolution would be to go vegan. That was in 1992 and I haven’t looked back since.

What changes have you seen in terms of veganism in recent years?

It’s getting much easier to be vegan. Back when I started, you could only buy soya milk in health food shops – now there’s a range of plant-based milks in every supermarket and a lot of corner shops too. With so many more meat and cheese substitutes now available, the days of making the journey from Luton to Brighton just to buy vegan cheese as a special treat are long gone.

Generally, there’s just much more awareness and understanding; more people are recognising that it’s an environmental issue as much as an ethical or health issue.

In terms of policy around food and farming, are things changing for the better or for worse?

My fear is that we’re moving backwards. The food policy of DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is mainly about boosting exports. Ministers aren’t interested in the impact of our food on the environment, or vice versa, so we’re now seeing them develop two separate 25 year plans on the environment and on food and farming, rather than one joined up approach.

The impact of the livestock industry on climate change still does not receive the attention it needs – agriculture didn’t feature enough in the Paris climate change talks. And Ministers tried to downgrade the Farm Animal Welfare Codes, so they’re just not interested in animal welfare and don’t see that we need regulation sometimes.

On the other hand, the new version of Public Health England’s Eatwell Guide recommends eating less red and processed meat and included soya milk.

What role do you think the farming sector should play post-Brexit?

Withdrawing from the Common Agricultural Policy will mean the farming industry will be amongst those most affected by Brexit. We import 40% of our fruit and vegetables from the EU, so I’d like to see more support for domestic production. And we need to replace CAP (the Common Agricultural Policy) with a system that genuinely promotes environmentally sustainable practices, rather than subsidising environmentally damaging practices.

What policies would you ideally like to see implemented in the UK to help people, the environment, and animals within the food and farming sector?

With Brexit, I’d like to see the farming subsidy system overhauled, but I don’t think the political will is there and I just don’t think these issues are on Ministers’ radar. They don’t seem to care about the moves towards intensive farming and the implications for animal welfare, for our environment and for the use of chemicals and antibiotics. For instance, a ban on the prophylactic use of antibiotics in agriculture would make a big difference.

We have farmers who are doing what they can to limit the environmental impact of their business – we need a market and subsidy system that recognises their efforts rather than penalises them for it.

I’d also like to see a joined-up approach that looks at how we can support healthy eating from a young age and ensure that a healthy diet is accessible and affordable for everyone. 

By Tom Kuehnel

In collaboration with MPs such as Kerry McCarthy, The Vegan Society looks forward to continuing to build on relationships in parliament and seek to influence policy going forwards. You can help us to put veganism on the political agenda by sending the Grow Green report to your MP, asking them to join our VEGAPPG, and by signing our petition.

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