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).