THE BLOG

Will a Vegan Be the Fox in the Defra Henhouse?

17/09/2015 09:00 BST | Updated 16/09/2016 10:12 BST

Jeremy Corbyn has been flexing his newly acquired leadership muscles over the past few days, appointing a shadow cabinet with ministers-in-waiting who are already attracting a fair bit of criticism over their personal beliefs and skills.

A Chancellor who has a degree in history and a penchant for some rather bilious imagery was the first to feel the righteous opprobrium of the media. But the appointment of vegan as minister for Defra has really had them sharpening their blue pencils.

As an eschewer of flesh and dairy myself, I have to say that giving Kerry McCarthy the job of fronting up to the doyens of British agriculture has sent Jezzer's stock up several points of magnitude in my estimation.

A quick squint at Farmers Weekly told me all I needed to know about how magnanimous the farming community were going to be towards her. I think the word 'loony' came up at least a dozen times on their Twitter feed alone.

The general feeling seems to be that Corbyn should have appointed someone more sympathetic to the interests of farmers, even if some of those interests often include the mistreatment and wholesale slaughter of livestock, insects, indigenous wildlife and local ecology.

Claims that she isn't going to be 'helpful' and that her appointment is 'inflammatory' seem to ignore the fact that as both a long standing MP and a minister, she would be mandated by government to look after the best interests of the environment for all of us, not just the bit farmers use.

These and other comments I find rather questionable. It's like saying her entire life is based around a vegan agenda, even though she's had years of campaigning on many other issues and, as far as I can tell, she's not some placard waving nut-job preparing to storm the farm gates with pitchfork welding hordes of tree-huggers.

But the title 'vegan' does seem to strike fear and loathing into the hearts of many people. Some hear the word 'vegan' and think 'Venusian', or maybe Vulcan. Just for the record, I don't have pointy ears and I've never tried to mind-meld with a courgette. I have hugged a tree though, but in my defence, the tree was particularly huggable.

As someone who stood for Parliament in May in a rural community, with a significant number of livestock farmers in my potential flock, the question of my own veganism came up many times. My answer was always that I was a vegan, but I was also a democrat, so I would represent all constituents equally regardless of my own personal beliefs.

I've always found it interesting in such cases that similar questions are rarely directed at people with particular cultural or religious backgrounds. It's a phenomenon I've noted on other occasions, where inherited aspects of faith are considered out of bounds, yet a rationally arrived at personal ethical position is regarded as fair game.

Farmers seem to fall foul of stereotypical descriptions too. They're either horny handed sons (or daughters) of the soil, driving cute little red tractors. Or they're industrial despots tearing the heart out of the land whilst pushing livestock through the machinery of profit as fast as their hooves will carry them. In many cases I know the truth is somewhere in between.

I'm not only a democratic vegan, I'm also a pragmatic one. I've never advocated wholesale abandonment of animal agriculture, at least not in the near future, and I don't make a habit of criticising farmers unless they deserve it. I know farmers who work extremely hard to make a living in difficult circumstances and I also see others who treat farming like an industrial process. No prizes for guessing which ones I have more respect for.

I do think we need to be moving away from intensive agriculture and at least instigating a gradual shift in our diet and agricultural practices. There also needs to be a much greater emphasis on animal welfare as well as concern and compassion for all wildlife. The effect on all of us as food consumers and cohabitees of an increasingly industrialised countryside is something that we should all be concerned about.

Farmers also need to start taking more responsibility for their own predicaments with less reliance on government schemes and more attention paid to things like bio-security, soil erosion and wildlife and insect habitat.

Again, I know many farmers do take these things seriously, but I know that a lot of others regard them as an annoyance to be dealt with by lobbyists. The recent government volte face on bee killing neonicotinoids being just one example.

It has to be said that much of the current administration's relationship with the rural community has been to allow some factions to blame everyone but themselves for everything from illegal hunting to bovine tuberculosis. The impression, warranted or otherwise, in terms of the latter is that farmers would much rather blow the head off a badger than clean out a contaminated drinking trough or two.

The second letter in Defra stands for 'Environment' and it's about time we had a proper discussion about the massive impact that dairy and livestock farming has on the biosphere. Some recent studies have estimated that these activities are responsible for 50% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions. This far eclipses the contributions from transport or other industries, yet it's rarely discussed, even by those who claim to be environmentalists. Perhaps part of the reason for that is many of these same environmentalists and climate activists also enjoy scarfing down a cheeseburger or slurping on a latte with depressing nonchalance.

Having a vegan as shadow minister for agriculture may well upset the cosy rapport farmers have with government at the moment, but I thought that was the point of electing Corbyn in the first place. To think the unthinkable and do what's right, rather than what's pragmatic and expedient to the wishes and votes of vested interests.

Next we'll be suggesting that we should have a shadow chancellor who's sympathetic to tax-dodging banks and soul-sapping trans-global corporations, and believes that any opposition to neo-liberalism is going to be a vote loser. And if we need reminding where that got us last time, maybe having an historian as chancellor isn't such a bad idea after all.