I’d rather be bonkers than ignorant …

Before her promotion to the Shadow Cabinet, Kerry McCarthy was interviewed for the Viva! Life magazine. In the published article she states: “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it.” Unsurprisingly, this generated a lot of media interest owing to her much publicised appointment as the Shadow Minister for DEFRA. All the nationals covered the story, and they all used a variation of this banner headline: “Treat meat eaters like smokers, says Labour’s vegan MP.” Obviously, this a distortion of what she actually said, and one paper described Viva! Life as “a magazine for vegans” (which means nobody else could possibly be interested in reading it?). Anyway, KM’s main point was that eating meat is unhealthy, and the more you eat the greater the risks. Therefore, people should be encouraged (via government health campaigns) to reduce or stop eating it. This makes perfect sense to anyone with the slightest awareness of the impact of increased meat consumption on the nation’s health. Basically, there is a direct correlation between the amount you eat (especially red meat) and the risk of serious medical conditions and reduced life expectancy. The biggest killer in the western world is heart disease, and saturated animal fat is the crucial factor.

Subsequently, on R4’s Any Questions (25/9/15) a specific question was asked about KM’s comment in Viva! Life magazine. The panel of esteemed idiots rose to the occasion with these statements. Firstly, Dr Ruth Lea (chair of Economists for Britain) stated: “I thinks she’s bonkers. Meat eating is, on the whole, meant to be good for your health. I don’t think anybody would dispute the fact that smoking is unhealthy, but it’s just not comparable [with eating meat]. The comment is just bonkers.” Secondly, this was followed by the dazzling insight of Sir Vince Cable (ex-Business Secretary in the Coalition Government). He stated: “The remark she made is fatuous. The problem with smoking is passive smoking; it harms others. I’m trying to work out what passive meat eating is [audience laughs] and how you harm other people by eating meat.” At this point the chairman (Jonathan Dimbleby) interjected: “Gas is given off by cows, and this damages the atmosphere.”

Where to begin with these comments? Firstly, they demonstrate a staggering level of arrogance and ignorance. Do these people really have no knowledge about the modern western diet with its high intakes of saturated animal fat, and the diseases of affluence (obesity, heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer, etc)? Secondly, the huge environmental impact of meat production. At least this was mentioned by the chairman, but are they really unaware of the fact that the vast global livestock population is responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all of the world’s transport systems? Thirdly, Ruth Lea and Vince Cable should have a basic understanding of the economics of sustainability. It’s pretty simple really; if (for example) red meat production requires a feed conversion ratio of 10:1 (that’s 10 kilos of feed for each kilo of meat) then it’s unsustainable. In fact, it isn’t just unsustainable, it’s bonkers.

Paul Freestone

 

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She can’t do that job, she’s “a committed vegan” …

The new Labour leader (Jeremy Corbyn) has selected the only vegan MP in the Commons (Kerry McCarthy) as Shadow Minister for DEFRA (Dept for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). This is brilliant news for all animal welfare and animal rights groups, and such a decision would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

However, this appointment has infuriated the National Farmers Union (NFU) and every other sector of the meat and dairy industries. It has also generated a lot of negative and unpleasant comments on social media. Most of the controversy seems to revolve around the fact that she is (as described by the presenter of R4’s World at One) “a committed vegan” and this in itself makes her “unsuitable” for the job. Johann Tasker from Farmer’s Weekly (a bastion of enlightened thinking) made these comments: “This is like appointing a pacifist as Shadow Defence Secretary. This isn’t just somebody who’s vegetarian, or against the badger cull, as farmers could work with someone like that. Kerry McCarthy believes that the livestock sector is dirty and cruel, that dairy farming is about forcing cows to give more milk than is natural, and the poultry industry is about getting hens to lay more eggs than is natural.” Bizarrely, the hapless Mr Tasker has actually highlighted specific points that are all true. Livestock production is “dirty and cruel”, dairy farming is obsessed with forcing cows to produce “more milk than is natural”, and the paramount aim of the poultry industry is to maximise the output of chickens which includes laying “more eggs than is natural”.

Crucially, one of McCarthy’s most damning critiques of DEFRA ministers is that they are simply “a spokesperson for the NFU”. Obviously, the NFU isn’t going to welcome anyone who makes this sort of assessment (especially when it happens to be very accurate). Any idea that their long standing cosy relationship with every DEFRA minister for decades could be disrupted will be anathema to them. Paradoxically, instead of being “totally unsuitable”, Kerry McCarthy is the ideal choice for this role. Firstly, she is passionately concerned with the key issues of animal welfare and sustainability. Secondly, she will confront all those appalling vested interests with a detailed knowledge of what really happens within factory farming and all methods of meat and dairy production.

Unsurprisingly, the tabloids have had a field day typified by The Daily Mail which referred to her as a “Militant Vegan MP” and proclaimed: “She has been vegan for 20 years and refuses to wear wool.” In fact, she presents her so-called “militant veganism” in a very reasonable way. On R4’s World at One (16/9/15) she stated: “It’s about sustainability and good welfare standards, and I’m very happy to work with the NFU and the farming community on this. I’m opposed to the move towards ever more intensive industrialised farming and huge dairy and pig farms. Also, I’m not opposed to the badger cull because I’m vegan. I’m opposed to it because very authoritative reports by scientists and experts have said it’s ineffective, and it’s not the way to stop bovine TB.”

Finally, it’s noteworthy that the widespread objections to McCarthy’s appointment echo those made against the new Labour leader. Apparently, it’s unacceptable to employ politicians in senior positions if they have deeply held principles and genuine beliefs. These individuals want to change the world, and make it a better place for everyone (which includes all sentient species across the planet). And personally, I really like the idea of a pacifist Shadow Defence Secretary.

Paul Freestone

To hear Kerry McCarthy speaking on Radio 4’s The Food Programme, about being vegan in the House of Commons, go to Feeding the Commons – Part II: Lunch to Lights Out (Her interview begins after about 7 minutes).

He can’t be a party leader, he believes in what he says …

There is a media storm over the leadership battle for the Labour Party. Against all the odds Jeremy Corbyn is currently the most popular candidate. It’s being claimed that he was only nominated to ensure that “the loony left” was represented, and now there are endless warnings that if he’s successful he will make Labour unelectable. However, some of the most extreme comments about Corbyn simply highlight the fact that he genuinely believes in a whole set of principles. It’s noteworthy that every media report mentions the fact that he’s a vegetarian. And even worse than that, he really is. The Daily Mail referred to him as “a strict vegetarian”, but they probably don’t actually know the difference between “a vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish) and “a strict vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish). The confusion for tabloid hacks is probably caused by “celebrity vegetarians” like Gwyneth Paltrow (she claims to be veggie but isn’t).

And when he was interviewed for The Guardian a few years ago, these ridiculous comments appear: “Our meeting was delayed for a few minutes by an amicable disagreement at the hot food counter in the Strangers’ Cafe in the House of Commons. Corbyn was refusing a plate of spaghetti because it was served bolognese. He insisted on being given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead. ‘I don’t eat meat,’ he explained. He takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously.”

Please note that the disagreement was “amicable”; instead of him shouting and screaming as most vegetarians obviously would. Also, that he was “given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead”. Of course this dish was “dull looking”, everybody knows that veggie food is always dull. And finally, “he takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously”. What? That’s outrageous, I don’t want somebody like this leading the Labour Party. Can you imagine what he might say about the meat industry, the badger cull, fish farming, and vivisection?

After all, this is the MP who led the deputation to No. 10 Downing Street in 2006 to hand in The Primate Nations (the report which showed why we shouldn’t be using non-humanJC at WDAIL 1984 primates in experiments); who won the Gandhi Foundation’s International Peace Prize in 2013 for his work for social justice and non-violence, including non-violence against animals; who has signed 13 of the 14 Early Day Motions currently putting the case for animals before the House of Commons; who in fact has backed campaigns for animals all through his parliamentary career.

OK, I accept the fact that it will be very difficult for Labour to win the next election if they adopt a series of left wing policies under Corbyn’s potential leadership. However, the Labour Party is currently “unelectable” because of the horrendous legacy of Tony Blair. It’s deeply ironic that Blair has publicly stated his objection to Corbyn. Could there be a greater difference between these two politicians? The former is a Messianic nutcase; guilty of a long list of heinous crimes against humanity. He always promoted himself as “a practising Christian”, and after leaving office he converted to Catholicism (which is enough to have him carted off in a strait jacket).

Have we really reached such a dire level in British politics that a man with “serious beliefs” based on fairness and compassion is considered a bad choice as a party leader? Maybe Corbyn is doing so well because he represents something that has been so lacking within our political structure? He might not have enough broad appeal to win a general election, but he’s still a fantastic breath of fresh air. And it’s just wonderful to dream about the possibility of a vegetarian Prime Minister.

 

[The photograph shows Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a World Day for Animals in Laboratories rally in 1984.]

 

Paul Freestone

 

How Not to Treat Babies

monkey-caged-animal-research-deprivation-lab-testing-imageDepriving babies of mother-love might seem necessarily a harmful thing to do, but according to the experimental psychologists who were interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 programme Mind Changers, parents in the mid-twentieth century didn’t take that view. They had apparently been trusting B.F.Skinner and his behaviourist psychology, which taught that the mother’s free expression of her natural affection would tend to spoil the children. It would train them to expect gratifications which the world would later deny them.

Then Professor Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed, in a series of experiments on rhesus monkeys, that babies didn’t only need their mothers for the milk; they needed physical affection and reassurance too. When the mothers of these monkeys were taken (permanently) from them, and they were provided instead with a choice of two perfunctory surrogates made of wire, they chose to cling to the one that promised emotional warmth, the one with a hank of terrycloth on it. However repellently it was made to behave towards them, they clung to it in preference to the milk-bearing model without any cloth on it at all. Later, with this crippled up-bringing behind them, the monkeys would unsurprisingly prove incapable of proper motherhood themselves.

According to Mind Changers, Harlow’s research “revolutionised parenting”.[1] Suddenly we discovered that, for infants, “contact comfort was crucially important”. The suggestion was that it’s Harry Harlow whom the under-60s have to thank for whatever affection they got in their infancy. But it has to be remembered that what Harlow showed was only that maternal affection was necessary to baby rhesus monkeys. If we are easily convinced that this finding translates to humans, it’s probably because we were already perfectly confident that it’s true of them too.

Besides, hadn’t Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian ethologist, shown back in the 1930s what motherhood and infant attachment meant: that is, that love of mother was not just cupboard love (not even cupboard love in some cases when the infant “imprinted” on a parent of the wrong species)? Mind Changers did mention Lorenz, as it did also mention the important clinical work of the psychiatrist John Bowlby. However, it said nothing of the paediatrician Benjamin Spock. Yet parents of the 1950s who had never heard of Skinner, Harlow, or Bowlby would have known of Dr Spock, or if not, were almost certainly following his advice unawares. His best-selling Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946, but still in print) famously begins with the words “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” In other words, you didn’t need Professor Harlow to tell you that the affection you felt for your offspring was a prompt in nature that you should act upon, still less Professor Skinner to tell you that it wasn’t. Spock was so widely read and followed that he was later blamed for all the delinquencies of the post-war generations: their distrust of authority, sexual permissiveness, political dissent, etc. Nobody, I think, blamed Harlow, and with good reason.

The BBC’s publicity for this programme refers to “the perceived cruelty of Harlow’s work”. One or two of the academics interviewed certainly did perceive it; others didn’t, or didn’t say so. Is the cruelty, then, just a matter of opinion, as the word ‘perceived’ seems intended to imply? Certainly acute distress was deliberately caused to babies and mothers, the most acute distress that can befall mammals; the traumatic character of such experiences was a premise of the research, and essential to what it claimed to teach. A ruthless programme of violence, then, wrong by any standards known outside the laboratory. But the term ‘cruelty’ implies that the harm is caused recklessly, even with relish. We would have to know that Harlow made jokes about his monkeys in their wretchedness (he did), or that his students inherited that sort of jocular response to the research (they did). We might ask if he himself acknowledged any element of cruelty in the work (he did: “We began as sadists trying to produce abnormality.”) We might ask if the experiments showed more than the strictly necessary contempt for the welfare of the monkeys: Mind Changers showed that they did. In short, Harry Harlow’s experiments were indeed knowingly and shamefully cruel.

Worse, those experiments have corrupted whoever has been induced to admire them. I recall that my ‘O’ level biology book made a feature of them, teaching children to think that science trumped kindness and decency. Likewise, a standard introductory work of the 1960s, The Science of Animal Behaviour (Penguin Books, 1964), had on its cover the famous photograph of a baby monkey making its pathetic choice of the terrycloth mother in Harlow’s laboratory – as if to say, this is our science at its most impressive. The same picture was mentioned in Mind Changers: “I really like this photo”, said the presenter. In such ways is inhumanity handed on.

I hope that this radio series will include, among its “classic psychology experiments” in future, Stanley Milgram’s ‘electric shock’ studies at Yale in the 1960s (already treated briefly in a sister-series on Radio 4, All in the Mind). Those famous experiments tended to show that lay-people can allow their native decency and compassion to be over-ridden by the prestige of an experimental scientist at work. But Milgram’s subjects were caught out in a momentary crisis, with no time to think. We have had sixty years to ponder Harry Harlow’s experiments. It’s time to stop celebrating them, and to agree that they dishonoured his profession and his species.

 

[1]  Except where otherwise stated, quotations are from Mind Changers: Harlow’s Monkeys, first broadcast in 2009, and broadcast as a repeat on Radio 4 Extra, 10 July 2015.