Kerry McCarthy MP on animal welfare and environmentalism

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and has had her seat since 2005. She has been vegan for over 25 years and campaigns tirelessly for ethical improvement and better ecological sustainability as well as national health issues. She kindly invited me to Portcullis House in Westminster where she shared her own reasons for being a vegan, and her opinions on fast food, vivisection, and the dairy industry.

When and why did you become a vegan?

It was a New Year’s resolution in 1992. I’d been a vegetarian since the Summer of 1981 when I was sixteen, so quite a long time. My sister, who’s three years younger – she became vegan about six years before I did – she was quite hardcore, quite preachy. I didn’t ever pay much attention to her. Then one day I actually listened to what she was saying, about how the only reason cows give milk is because they’ve been impregnated; that there’s a calf that gets disposed of. It felt illogical to just be vegetarian. You’ve got to be vegan as well.

It was right before Christmas, and I said I’d give up. We were living in Luton which is still not exactly a hotbed of bohemianism! I suppose we didn’t go out that much because we didn’t have that much money, so we just made curries and pasta. I think it coincided with Holland and Barrett opening up in town so there was somewhere we could get soya milk.

How do you thinking becoming vegan shaped your rise in politics?

The year I became vegan was actually the year I joined the Labour Party. I did A Level Politics, I did Russian and Politics at University; I was interested in quite a self-contained way. Then Labour lost the 1992 election and that’s when I joined the party – and I became vegan that year. I suppose its all about deciding to put your principles into action.

Initially I became vegan for animal welfare issues, and then you start learning about the environmental arguments and health reasons. I didn’t really have an outlook for them; I’d say the politics I was involved in was very different. The environment wasn’t a big issue then. When Labour got into government there was obviously the fox hunting issue but not really the broader context – it’s far more discussed now, I’d say.

How do you think Labour is particularly effective at bringing about ecological improvement?

Labour’s traditionally been good on animal welfare issues – as I say, the fox hunting bill, and there have been other incremental steps like banning fur farmers. I don’t think any main leadership politician has been bold enough in terms of speaking up about the environmental arguments because they get very worried when it’s seen as telling people what they can and can’t do, what they can and can’t eat. They’re worried about losing votes. I think there’s still some way to go before people are prepared to speak up on it.

Whilst we are talking about half-measures – what are your thoughts on vivisection? Is it hypocritical to endorse animal testing or unethical to oppose it?

The sister I mentioned who went vegan before I did, my sister Emma – she’s got a daughter with cystic fibrosis and another genetic condition which is incredibly rare. I think they’ve found one other child in the UK whose got it; there’s only about 30 cases worldwide. It’s only just been diagnosed – it’s in the early stages. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic thing, and this other thing is genetic, and there is research out there that could really help her. It might even save her life.

There are so many animal experiments that are unnecessary; you’ve still got the legacy of the cosmetic stuff, the household products, recreational drugs. There’s duplication because companies don’t share data! Let’s get rid of all the unnecessary testing. Let’s do what we can to explore the alternatives to animal testing when it comes to the necessary animal research. I don’t understand the first thing about Biology, but there are scientists now who say you can do it better just by taking cells.

My view is – if you can, avoid taking lives or making other creatures miserable, but there is still a hierarchy. When it comes to my niece or a rat? I’m sorry but I can’t see an equivalence between that. It is difficult, but you could save so many animals just by cutting out the unnecessary stuff.

I don’t think any main leadership politician has been bold enough in terms of speaking up about the environmental arguments

What do you think about the rise in vegan fast food? With the emergence of Gregg’s vegan sausage roll and the M&S new vegan ready meal range, is the lifestyle drifting away from a health movement?

It’s just terrible! There used to be this discipline you had because you couldn’t find anything to eat most of the time. Now we’ve got dirty fries, sausages – it’s so bad. Until very recently I almost felt that if somewhere did something vegan, it was such a novelty that it was almost rude not to try it! I think I’ve got it out my system now.

But surely dairy alternatives are good?

Yeah – and it will still be healthier. There are five vegan MPs now, three of us in Bristol. The ones who have been vegan longest are really healthy. They don’t eat the vegan meats or cheese. It’s all whole foods. If you can tempt people into it with food that’s just as nice, if not nicer… this is where it gets difficult in terms of public health intervening in diets.

When it comes to my niece or a rat? I’m sorry but I can’t see an equivalence between that.

Is there enough information out there about being vegan in a healthy way?
I think generally speaking people don’t know how to eat in a healthy way. The people who are eating meat probably aren’t eating enough vegetables or pulses or wholegrains. People’s lifestyles don’t lend themselves to being healthy. What I actually find is that rather than focussing on what you don’t eat, the way to work is to decide, “I’m going to factor these vegetables into my diet today” – and then I can eat what I like around that. But it is difficult living in two places, which you have to being an MP. And the hours – yesterday I was here until 11 o’clock at night.

What’s the greatest government achievement you’ve seen in terms of conservation?

When Labour was in government we had the Climate Change Act. I was at a committee meeting this morning and they said it was truly ground-breaking, that there were over a hundred other countries that adopted similar legislation. It means that we have an overall target of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. The government has to set five-year carbon budgets – we’re in the third one at the moment which is from 2018 to 2023, and that’s got a number of targets and actions within it.

The decline in biodiversity has been pretty shocking in terms of numbers of species. A lot of it’s like insects and things you wouldn’t even notice, but it is a real crisis there and I don’t think enough is being done. There’s the Agriculture Bill that is attached to Brexit basically. That is changing the way we subsidise farming, so it should be more linked to environmental goods. I was on the committee that. It will be coming back to Commons probably once Teresa May’s got her Brexit deal through. At the moment farmers are subsidised based on the amount of land that they have, not what they do with the land – so there’s no incentive to farm in a sustainable way – this will mean they won’t get subsidised unless they do the right sort of things with the land concerning biodiversity, animals, things like that. I’m quite excited about that.

I think generally speaking people don’t know how to eat in a healthy way.

What is your aim now for the rest of your time in Parliament?

Michael Gove has said he wants to bring forth a food strategy, and Henry Dimbleby, who runs the Leon chain of restaurants, did quite a bit of work for the government on school food. It’s not going to see the light of day until Brexit is sorted because they don’t have the resources to do it. But the joining up of food policy and public health outcomes, public procurement, the sort of food we provide in our schools and our hospitals and our prisons, and how you link that up with sustainable farming, local food – just an overall approach to food that we don’t really have – it’s about growing the right food, making sure people can access it, food poverty.

Are you aiming for national veganism?

Some vegans would be really hardcore about it and fundamentalist. Chris Packham was doing video posts very day during Veganuary, and now he’s staying vegan. He’s had people pulling him up on it because he says he’ll eat locally produced honey, he doesn’t have a problem with that. People go, “You’re not a true believer!”. I think we should be welcoming the fact that people are eating less meat and becoming more aware of the environmental impact of what they’re eating, with all the animal welfare concerns, and it’s pretty off-putting if you don’t given them credit for going part of the way. So I’m not hardcore in that sense.

When I got made Shadow Environment Secretary, people pulled me up on this interview I did for this Bristol-based vegan magazine. I’d said something about becoming more militant as I got older – an off-the-cuff remark – but then it was, “militant vegan!”. I didn’t mean “militant” like that! I was just a bit impatient to move things on, to come more to the forefront in terms of what I wanted to do.

What about the dairy industry and the related industries that are already suffering because of the rise in dairy alternative products?

The dairy sector is quite upset about the growth of plant-based milks. I think that’s been the biggest change. It’s tricky – but that’s life, that’s business! Tastes change. It might sound harsh but when it comes down to it, people have the right to chose what they want to eat. If they’ve got a product people want, people will buy it.

The supermarkets have adapted and almost promote the demand by getting more products out there – it’s a snowball effect. They’re responding to consumer demand but they’re also stimulating that demand. With farmers its much more difficult because you can have family chains that have farmed the land for centuries. Some are keen to adapt, and some aren’t.

It might sound harsh but when it comes down to it, people have the right to chose what they want to eat.

Is there enough vegan representation in Parliament, and does sustainability get the attention it deserves with everything else going on at the moment?

There are five vegans in Parliament now who in various ways will mention it. Darren from Bristol – North West Darren Jones – he very much talks about the environmental angle. Thangam [Debbonaire] came to it after she had breast cancer actually. She’d been vegetarian since she was about fourteen and was diagnosed with breast cancer right after she was elected in 2015, and did quite a lot of reading up. I took her to Veg Fest and she realised you could actually make vegan cakes and that’s what finally switched her! So there are people coming from different angles.

The vegetarians don’t really speak out in the same sort of way. One or two MPs I think did Veganuary. I think it would be good to have a push next year and try to get more of them acknowledging it. Caroline Lucas called for a Meat Tax and that didn’t go down very well. I think that’s probably not the right approach. There are little flurries among the Environmental Order Committee I’m on at the moment is doing an enquiry into planetary health, and one of the sessions was all about food – and the meat eating thing came up quite a lot. The committee has got to agree on a report and there are two farmers on the committee that won’t want to go there at all. But you cannot have an enquiry about sustainable function and land use and the food system without talking about meat at some point. So it’s getting more traction, but there needs to be even more.

Image: Official Parliamentary portrait of Kerry McCarthy