Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy, a self-described “militant” vegan, has caused concern among farmers with her recent statement that meat eaters should be treated like smokers – and that there should be public campaigns encouraging people to reduce the amount of meat they consume. McCarthy’s strong personal views, that should in no way impede on her ability to work as a spokeswoman for the UK’s farming industry, have nonetheless caused worry due to the size and essential nature of meat production to the economy. However, the benefits of cutting back on eating meat are undeniable, both on their impact on people’s health (eating meat is related to heart disease) and the fact that the meat industry as it currently stands is directly harmful to the environment. It may be time for a serious conversation about the way the British public consumes meat.
Vegetarianism is becoming more popular each year, pointing to a growing cultural awareness of the unsustainability of the meat industry. The environmental threat posed by meat consumption (livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions) or the uncomfortable moral questions posed by the fact that 2.5 million animals are killed for food every day in the UK, are possible reasons for people to shift away from meat eating.
But these statistics also serve to show the extent to which meat is such a fundamental part of many people’s lives. To staunch carnivores, McCarthy’s views may seem condescending and unrealistic, when the meat farming industry is such a large part of both daily life and the economy as a whole. Her idea of targeting the public in campaigns aiming to discouraging meat eating seems patronizing and unrealistic, and an easy way for her political position and that of Labour itself to lack credibility. A spokesperson from the Countryside Alliance has even warned that McCarthy’s stance could alienate farmers from the Labour party entirely.
The hard truth for vegans and vegetarians to accept is that an overwhelming number of people are not willing or able to stop eating meat, whether for reasons of tradition, ease, or just plain ignorance. In many cases, vegetarianism is simply not an accessible option. The real focus of reducing the problems should be a push for more regulations on Britain’s meat industry, to target the source of the production instead of blaming consumers. It is a good sign that McCarthy has stated she wants to make the meat industry “sustainable as well as economically viable”.
While there should be widespread education about the damaging, often inhumane reality of the process by which meat gets on supermarket shelves, it is not immediately effectual to target the meat eating public for their choices. Vegetarianism as a personal choice is a reasonable and even admirable response to the multitude of both ethical and practical issues posed by meat farming. If McCarthy inspires anyone even just to cut back on how much meat they eat, this can only be a good thing for both the planet and their own health.
No harm can come from the UK as a whole being encouraged to eat less meat, but the government’s priority at this time should be making the industry itself more responsible and sustainable. If it is time for a real debate about the ethics and problems associated with our overwhelming preference for meat eating, it must begin with them.
Image: Tim Geers