INTERVIEW WITH KERRY MCCARTHY

Kerry McCarthy is a British politician.

She was the first vegan member of parliament (MP) in the House of Commons and has been vegan for more than 25 years. McCarthy is an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Vegetarianism and Veganism and is working to address food poverty and food waste issues, having introduced the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill. In 2011 she became the first MP to make the case for becoming vegan.

Photo credit:  Chris McAndrew

Photo credit: Chris McAndrew

Why did you decide to go vegan?

I became vegetarian in 1981, and my younger sister then followed suit. She later became vegan and eventually—after listening to her explain the link between dairy and animal cruelty—I realized that I had to go vegan too. That was December 1991, and I became vegan as a New Year’s Resolution in 1992.

How has the animal rights movement changed since you first went vegan?

It has become more mainstream, with some very high profile campaigns and campaigners. There is a stronger emphasis on animals in the food system too, which I welcome—back [in 1992] it was mostly about anti-vivisection and hunting. Obviously, there’s an overlap between [animal] rights and welfare, and most of the current campaigns could be seen as being at the welfare end. I know some vegans regard a focus on welfare as counterproductive—as it has the potential to suggest that there can be such things as “humane slaughter” or “happy meat”—but I think we have to be pragmatic.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced getting animal welfare on the political agenda?

Hunting is highly controversial, but there is huge public support [for a ban on hunting], and a majority in Parliament is for keeping the ban, despite vocal opponents.

The toughest challenge is when farming interests are involved. I was heckled by farming members of parliament (of which there are many) when I did my speech on World Vegan Day in 2011. A debate last year on driven grouse shooting (a particular type of hunting sport)—at which I was the only MP to fully support a ban—was also very bad-tempered. We had a debate on non-stun slaughter, during which Jewish and Muslim MPs were listening with respect, but when a Tory MP spoke from a vegetarian perspective about cruelty in other slaughterhouses, his colleagues jeered.

There is a huge degree of complacency about farm animal welfare, with ministers constantly repeating the mantra that the U.K. has some of the best animal welfare standards in the world. This is often used to shut down debate. A recent debate on banning live exports is another example of a challenge we faced.

Have you faced any challenges personally as a result of your status as a vegan in politics?

I worry that I have less credibility on some issues because people assume I’m biased or extreme. For example, in a recent private meeting I tried to ask a serious question about whether using public funds to increase milk production was really the right response to the crisis in the dairy industry—given that there is already an over-supply, which means prices are low. [I] was shouted down by a dairy farmer.

I was widely ridiculed in the press when I was made Shadow Secretary of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA)—the Daily Mail was particularly bad. Even my mother was “doorstepped” by a journalist who said he was “passing by” (she lives in a village in Bedfordshire and doesn’t have the same surname as me).

Many of the things I was ridiculed for raising are actually pretty mainstream. The issue around methane emissions from cattle, for example, is supported by the UN’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report (and many other authoritative sources). I mentioned the UN’s verdict in the speech [which was] then used by the Daily Mail to say that I had some very laughable views. Yet the Daily Mail also frequently runs stories about the health risks associated with processed meat, and the environmental cost of meat-eating is now widely known and reported. In Al Gore’s recent sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, he says something to the effect of “I’ve been doing this for so long that I am now absolutely sure I am right”—and that’s kind of how I feel. It’s very reassuring to see other people now reaching the same conclusions I did many years ago, and, as Al Gore would say, I know we are right!

What policy changes would you like to see happen for animals?

There are a lot. As a politician, it’s important to focus on what can actually be achieved but without losing sight of the end goals. This year’s battles are things like:

  • The roll-out of the badger cull (despite the Government’s own experts describing it as “unscientific, ineffective and inhumane”)
  • A possible post-Brexit ban on live exports and the import of foie gras
  • The debate around sentience
  • How we can use agricultural subsidies to promote higher welfare standards
  • Everything bad about post-Brexit trade deals (which tends to be summarized as “chlorinated chicken“)

There is also quite a lot of parliamentary action on endangered species-related issues, such as the ivory ban.

How do you think Brexit will affect farmed animal welfare/rights?

There are three main aspects to this.

  1. Brexit will give the U.K. the opportunity to develop our own Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), replacing the current CAP with our own system of agricultural subsidies. These might be able to be used to promote higher welfare, and to discuss what “higher welfare” means. This is also linked to the debate on better labeling, including methods of rearing and slaughter.
  2. It will also affect trade deals—this is the most important thing. Are we going to jettison food safety and animal welfare standards in a rush to conclude a trade deal with the U.S.? Antibiotic use, which is already too high in U.K. farming, is five times higher in the U.S.—that’s a public health crisis in the making. Not to mention hormone-pumped beef, chlorinated chicken, etc. I am totally opposed to intensive industrialized mega-farms, and there is a danger that this is the way our farms will go if they have to compete with cheaper, lower welfare U.S. imports (although of course it’s not just the U.S.). Michael Gove has said the right things about not wanting the U.K. to lower its standards, but Liam Fox has said otherwise. It is absolutely critical that we make sure Gove prevails in Cabinet. The odds are stacked against him unless he has the public on his side.
  3. Lastly, Brexit will affect things we have previously said we can’t do because the E.U. won’t let us—like banning foie gras imports or live exports.

What are your thoughts about the recent vote on animal sentience?

I was the second name on this amendment, which was tabled by Caroline Lucas. In some ways, the public/press response was a little unfair. It was reported as the government saying that animals aren’t sentient beings—whereas what they were actually arguing was just that a verdict on animal sentience didn’t need to be enshrined in that bill (possibly for nefarious reasons though).

Michael Gove has subsequently brought forward an Animal Sentencing and Sentience Bill. The sentience provision is badly drafted, and I was on the EFRA committee that criticized it. I am concerned that some will use [the bill] as a way of abandoning the legislation altogether. I think people who have interests in farming or blood sports are worried it will make legal challenges against them more likely. We need to make sure the bill is improved and strengthened.

There are some simple changes that can be made, like including crustaceans as sentient beings. But some are wary of making any changes to current law, as it will pave the way to a complete overhaul of welfare law—rather than this being a simple bill that just makes sure we are at least at the same level of protection we were at pre-Brexit.

It’s a tactical decision as to whether we want to push for a really good comprehensive bill now, or just make sure we at least get a basic level of protection on the statute books and then debate the detail at the next opportunity (which could be a long wait). Again, public support is very important.

As an MP who cares about farmed animals, what are some of the actions you’re able to take?

Most MPs who “do” animal welfare tend to focus on pets or endangered species. I will support those campaigns, but my priority is farmed animals—given the huge numbers of animals involved in this industry and the once-in-a-generation chance we now have to review our farming system…plus the fact that few others are doing it!

I work closely with groups like Compassion in World Farming, and at the moment I’m predominantly focusing on Brexit and issues related to trade deals. I’m on the EFRA Select Committee, although I’m in a minority when it comes to my views! I chair the All-Party Group on Agroecology, which is doing a lot of good work trying to promote more sustainable farming.

There are some really good journalists now interested in food and farming policy as it affects animals. For example, The Guardian has just published an excellent series called Animals Farmed where they’re working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Greenpeace Unearthed is another good source of stories. I often provide journalists with quotes and details of parliamentary questions I’ve asked.

What actionable advice do you have for people who are concerned about animal rights policy?

I’d refer people to what I’ve said above about which issues are currently on the political agenda and where public support is needed to push the right policy through. Politicians—or at least the good ones—will pay attention when constituents lobby them (particularly if it is a large number of constituents). It can be frustrating when change doesn’t come fast enough, but every incremental step will help make life better for animals—reducing their suffering and paving the way for future action.