Why the appointment of Kerry McCarthy to the shadow cabinet is good

Dan-Raoul Miranda, 2014

Photograph: Flickr / Dan-Raoul Miranda

Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment of Kerry McCarthy as Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at first glance seems strange. Nevertheless, this appointment could instead hail the beginning of a more balanced debate concerning the animal industry.

In vegan magazine Viva!Life McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, described herself as “militant” about reducing meat consumption. Someone who believes in “not eating meat or dairy” intuitively seems an unlikely candidate to be promoting the interests of farmers struggling with low milk prices, flooding, increasing EU regulation, and grain price rises in international markets.

Vegans are by nature more likely to be aware of the benefits to health and the environment of reducing meat consumption. McCarthy will therefore be more likely to voice these benefits, pressuring for more balanced policy in the animal industry than a non-vegan might have done. The concern that she will be too subjective in her role to the detriment of farmers should be small given that the scope for one shadow MP to overhaul an entire system is minimal.

Reducing meat consumption has proven to be a notable way of combating some environmental problems: deforestation, water supply issues ,and climate change. 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring and that greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause. A significant portion of governmental policy seeks to reduce these emissions.

Per calorie, beef requires 160 times more land than rice or potatoes, producing 11 times more greenhouse gases. The average American consumes 31 animals a year and PETA estimates that adopting a ‘meatless Monday’ diet alone could save 30,000 gallons of water a week, or two small swimming pools a year. Considering the additional two billion people that will need to be fed by 2050, meat consumption is clearly a relevant in any discussion of climate change.

In addition to the benefits for the environment, a momentous October publication by the World Health Organisation confirmed the health benefits of reducing meat consumption. Studies produced by WHO demonstrate that there is ‘strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect [of consuming red meat]’. It is now classified by WHO as a Group 1 carcinogenic. Dr. Christopher Wild, Director of International Agency for Research on Cancer commented that ‘these findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat’. This is significant evidence to start a debate on meat consumption.

This isn’t to deny that farming is an important industry for the UK economy and for the 0.7% of the population whose livelihoods depend on it. Being vegan, however need not mean McCarthy be biased towards policies that harm the interests of farmers. As vegans make up only 0.1% of the UK population, there is an electoral interest for her to appeal to the remaining 99.9%.

Most people see it as important to look after the welfare of animals, openly voicing their commitment to the ‘humane’ treatment of those animals. This was recently demonstrated by ‘Animals Australia’ in a public experiment. The public were asked if they were comforted by the description of animals being killed in ‘the most humane way’ but many were appalled when shown footage. The realities of routine practices that would shock most people are disguised in discussions concerning meat.

As a vegan, and having more awareness of these practices, McCarthy is arguably better able to make the debate more transparent. Being in a high profile position, she is able to expose the more sinister side of the industry and promote the benefits of reducing meat intake. She is now in a position to promote policies that increase animal welfare in the industry, something which everyone would endorse.