Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour Party leadership contest earlier this month, but a lot of people are still unsure and a little dubious about his views and what he plans to do with the party. This only seems to have been exacerbated by a recent statement made by new shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Kerry McCarthy, who was a rather strange choice for the position as she is a vegan. She is quoted as having said “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it.”
The reaction of some people after this statement may have been a bit over the top, as she did later clarify her comments and told Radio 4 that she knows the UK isn’t going to turn vegan, and that she accepts, although does not like, the farming industry. She claimed her attention is on increasing animal welfare and sustainability. However, the comparison between eating meat and smoking was a bad analogy, a little insulting to meat eaters and smokers, and it got me thinking about what would happen if the UK did indeed turn vegan, what that would mean for us and for the animals, and whether the government should be in charge of what people can and cannot eat.
A lot of people took offence to these comments, and rightly so. We have public campaigns to raise awareness about the harms of smoking (and second hand smoke) because smoking can make health problems much more likely, and is linked to cancer, bronchitis, strokes and numerous other serious conditions. We do not try to ban smoking and we should respect peoples right to do what they want with their own bodies as long as they are not breathing their smoke onto us, but we try to make sure everyone knows the risks. As far as I am aware, there are no significant health problems linked to a healthy meat based diet. Meat has a lot of protein, iron and nutritional properties that are necessary for a healthy diet, and although it is perfectly possible (and fairly easy, as you can see from my blog) to have a healthy vegetarian diet and incorporate all the protein and vitamins you need, it is harder to get enough protein and iron as a vegetarian simply because you need to actively think about it and consciously add it to your diet. It is not hard to be a vegetarian, and eating meat can be more expensive and the added risks of not cooking meat properly and foor-and-mouth disease are concerns, but I see no evidence that eating properly cooked and good quality meat is significantly harmful to humans, and therefore the analogy between eating meat and smoking makes no sense. It cannot be a public health campaign if public health is not a concern.
Of course, she may well not have been talking about harm to humans. Obviously farming harms the animals in that they are ultimately killed for their meat, and I have heard quite disturbing stories about farmers continuously breeding animals so they will produce milk, and then killing the babies. I don’t know how common that is, but it is not a nice image and, although I continue to eat milk products, it does worry me. I am a vegetarian, and personally I think sheep, goats and to a lesser extent cows are cute, pleasant creatures and it makes me sad to think of them living just to be killed. When I look at a sheep, I do not want to eat it. I want to stroke it and bid it a good day. It is wrong to assume animals have the same mental processes that we do, and to assume that they share our emotional responses, but it is also wrong to assume they are devoid of all emotion and feeling. They do feel pain, they do form bonds and I believe that when they are about to be killed, they often know something is wrong and they are scared. They may also notice when members of their group go missing and it may cause them distress.
I do have a personal problem with animals being bred to become food, and the attitudes of people and how much many of them do not care that the meat they are eating used to be alive does disturb me. Simply put, whilst I do not think my views should become law and people should be forced to share them, my personal views are probably quite similar to McCarthy’s. Vegetarian pressure groups and individuals have every right to spread awareness and promote their agendas, and they can produce documentaries, pamphlets, books and blogs in which they try to persuade people to their way of thinking. However, I strongly question if this agenda should be implemented by the government itself, and that trying to enforce change rather than trying to persuade people by logical arguments is the way to go.
All of the above refers to the free range animals you will often see grazing in fields as you pass in a train or coach, not factory farming which imprisons these animals and does not allow them any freedom. Factory farming is not acceptable, and I agree there should be campaigns to raise awareness about it and try to prevent it, and laws to make it illegal. This does not mean that meat should be illegal, but factory farming should be without a doubt.
Personally the idea of any type of farming and people caring for, sometimes naming and building a relationship with these animals, and then killing and eating them has always freaked me out. However, a lot of animals do seem to have fairly free and peaceful lives until they die, when I recently went to Scotland there were fields full of free range sheep and cows and, although some of them had markings on them that I assume meant they were going to be killed or milked, they were able to move around, interact with each other and graze in peace. Whilst I do not like the idea on an emotional level, I do have to ask that if we did not farm these animals for our own use, would they exist today? I do not believe they would, as we keep them alive and breed them for our own purposes. If we did not do that, I believe these animals (at least in the form they are in now) would not exist, they would be extinct, in fact the reason they are the way they are is because of farming. Also whether we like it or not we do currently have farming in this country, and we do have these animals in abundance, and if the UK was to suddenly go completely vegan what would we do with the animals? Would they just roam free and evolve on their own? Would they change beyond recognition? Or would people get sick of them taking up land without benefiting humans and carry out a mass farm animal genocide? I don’t know, but I can’t personally imagine a world where we could co-exist with that many ‘wild’ animals in peace, or indeed that people would not end up killing and eating them again. The UK becoming vegan would also destroy animal farmers, would put a lot of people out of business, would raise unemployment and would destroy a whole livelihood that some people are proud of and skilled in. I don’t like farming, but I can see the problems this would cause, and I’m not sure its the best solution where humans are concerned but also where the animals are concerned. Many vegetarians argue that as we have a higher intellectual capability we have the power to choose not to eat animals in the way lions, tigers and other carnivores do not, and that’s perfectly valid. However, whether you agree with it or not you do have to accept that not everyone shares your views, and if people want to eat meat we do have to allow them to do so, in the same way that it would be completely wrong for carnivores to try and make eating meat compulsory. McCarthy does accept the UK isn’t going to go vegan, but she does seem to wish it would, and I’m not sure if she’s thought it through.