World Vegan Day

– in the House of Commons at 10:14 pm on 1st November 2011.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:27 pm, 1st November 2011

I start by expressing my sympathy for the Minister tonight. It can never be much fun doing the late night Adjournment debate, and I am fairly sure that this is not an issue dear to his heart.

This is the first time that world vegan day has been marked in Parliament. The chefs have also done a sterling job, with vegan dishes in the main restaurants on the parliamentary estate every day this week. Earlier today, the Vegan Society event was swamped by MPs and staff lured there by the promise of free vegan cupcakes. The cakes came courtesy of the award-winning Ms Cupcake, who has just won contracts to supply her cakes to the Olympics and Paralympics, not because her cakes are vegan but because they are delicious.

As a vegan of nearly 20 years’ standing, I am very fortunate to represent a seat in Bristol, because it not only plays host to the largest vegan fayre in Europe each year but has some great restaurants and shops catering for vegans, such as Cafe Kino, Cafe Maitreya, Wild Oats, Better Foods and the Sweetmart. I am pleased to be joined tonight by my vegan comrades, my hon. Friends the Members for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). We are apparently the largest vegan caucus in the world.

In response to a survey by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2007 on public behaviour and attitudes towards the environment, about 2% of respondents said that they were vegan. The number of converts is growing. The former fast-food lover Bill Clinton has adopted a vegan diet for health reasons, saying that previously he had been playing Russian roulette with his health, and last week both Ozzy Osbourne—the man who used to bite the heads off bats—and Russell Brand announced that they had decided to become vegan after watching the film “Forks Over Knives”. Other celebrity vegans include Joaquin Phoenix, Alicia Silverstone, Ellen DeGeneres, Carl Lewis, Woody Harrelson, Bryan Adams, Chrissie Hynde, Alanis Morissette, Benjamin Zephaniah and even Mike Tyson—so when people say to me, “You don’t look like a vegan”, I am not quite sure what they mean.

A vegan diet means not eating meat, fish, dairy, eggs or products derived from them. Ethical vegans also avoid wearing leather, wool and silk, and buying or using products that are tested on animals or contain animal products. I think that it is a personal choice how far people want to take it, and some vegans are much stricter than others, which is fine.

Among the many prejudices against vegans is the belief that they are always preaching to others and trying to convert them. I do not think that is true; we are incredibly tolerant. We are always polite when others ask, “Don’t you ever get tempted by a bacon sandwich?”—as the Whip did to me only a moment ago—and we always pretend that we have never heard anyone tell the “Spock from Star Trek vegan/Vulcan” joke before, even though we hear it practically every day. In fact, most vegans I know are rather coy about explaining why they are vegan, mostly because the question tends to be asked when we are sitting a dinner table full of meat eaters, and it seems rather impolite to answer. However, seeing as we are not at a dinner party now, here is the ethical case, the health case and the environmental case for being vegan.

If people are vegetarians for ethical reasons—because they believe that killing and eating animals is wrong—they really ought to be vegan, too. The average human eats more than 11,000 animals in his or her lifetime, but millions of calves and chicks are also killed every year as “waste products” of milk and egg production. I confess that, for me, it took a long time for the penny to drop that cows are not constant milk-producing machines. Just like every other animal, including human females, cows produce milk only to nurse their young. The dairy industry means artificially forcing loads more milk out of cows—10 to 20 times more than they need to feed their calves, with their huge udders causing painful mastitis and lameness—and taking their calves away early, or, in the case of male dairy calves, which are useless to the dairy industry, either shooting them at birth or exporting them live to the rest of the EU for the veal trade. The average lifespan of a dairy cow is six years, compared with a natural lifespan of 20 to 25 years. Some 100,000 male calves a year are deemed a surplus by-product on Britain’s dairy farms because they cannot give birth or produce milk. An undercover investigation by the Bristol-based vegetarian campaign Viva! showed a calf taken from its mother and shot in the head at Halewood Gate dairy farm near Bristol, which supplies milk for Cadbury—something that was reported in The Sun of all places.

Hens are forced to lay 20 times as many eggs as is natural for them. Male chicks are useless to the egg industry. Millions of day-old chicks are killed, with many thrown alive into mincers—known as “homogenisers”. This also happens in free-range and organic systems, despite their claims to be cruelty-free. I have previously raised with the Minister my concern that, having made progress in areas such as banning battery cages, this country is now moving to embrace industrial-scale intensive farming, with the Nocton dairy mega-farm, housing thousands of cows in something that resembles a multi-storey car park, and the huge pig farm planned in Foston, Derbyshire, with more than 20,000 pigs and piglets. I know the Minister’s views on that well, so I will touch on it only in passing.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the case for eating less meat or becoming vegan is reinforced by the fact that major companies are buying up vast tracts of land in developing nations to grow grain for animals, displacing subsistence farmers from their land? When 2 billion people on this planet are going hungry every night, would it not be better to use the food that we produce more efficiently by feeding it directly to human beings, rather than to animals, which is an inefficient way of using land?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I will come to the environmental and food security case for being vegan in a moment.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

Can the hon. Lady point to any peer-reviewed science to support her allegation about the UK livestock industry, rather than giving us the mantra of the animal rights or vegan movement? If she can do that, her argument might carry a bit more weight.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am about to cite some scientific research on the health case, and I also have some very authoritative sources for the environmental case. The ethical case is about people’s personal opinions on whether it is ethical to treat animals in such a way or to eat them. It is not science-led; it is led by people’s morals.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

So is the hon. Lady saying that the assertions she has made about agricultural practices are a personal opinion, as opposed to there being any evidence to support them?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am not quite sure which practices the hon. Gentleman is referring to. If he is talking about the average lifespan of a dairy cow, that is something that I have researched and it is in the public domain. I know that DEFRA is looking to get the average lifespan of a dairy cow up to eight years, but six years was the average cited in the research that I looked at, while the figure for cows suffering from mastitis is 33%. I could go on—although I do not have the footnotes before me—but it is all in the public domain and well researched.

It can be quite difficult to nail down the facts and figures on the health benefits of a vegan diet, particularly when organisations such as meat marketing boards and milk marketing boards spend millions on counter-promotions. As I have mentioned, the recently released film “Forks Over Knives” puts the case that switching to a wholefoods-based vegan diet can prevent and even reverse serious illnesses. The film gives an overview of the 20-year China-Cornell-Oxford project, which found that a number of diseases, including coronary disease, diabetes and cancer, can be linked to the western diet of processed and animal-based foods. It is certainly true that the traditionally very low rates of breast cancer among Japanese women are increasing as they adopt western diets with a higher consumption of animal fats. In Japan, affluent women who eat meat daily have an 8.5 times higher risk of breast cancer than poorer women who rarely or never eat meat.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

How would the hon. Lady respond to the statement by my GP and many others that we need a balanced diet, and that a balanced diet should include meat?

J

I'd say they are 50 years out of date! A balanced diet may contain meat, but needn't. See...

Submitted by John Fellowes Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I will come to that in a moment. The World Cancer Research Fund carried out an authoritative study which found that people should avoid processed meat altogether, and eat red meat in moderate amounts only. That is the most authoritative study that I have come across. Cancer Research UK is co-funding a massive study called EPIC—the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition—which has found that people who ate two daily 80-gram portions of red or processed meat increased their risk of developing bowel cancer by a third, compared with those who ate just 20 grams a day. The same study found that people eating more than 100 grams of meat a day had over three times the risk of getting stomach cancer.

As I mentioned, the World Cancer Research Fund reviewed 263 research papers and concluded in May this year that there was convincing evidence that red and processed meat increased the risk of bowel cancer. When those findings emerged, the National Beef Association and the National Sheep Association, in conjunction with the National Farmers Union, issued statements accusing the fund of misleading the public. The fund retaliated by accusing the British meat industry of potentially defamatory and deliberately misleading statements, and repeated its message that it was best to avoid processed meat and to eat red meat only in moderation. It stated:

“The fact is that our report is the most comprehensive and authoritative review of the evidence that has ever been published and it found convincing evidence that red and processed meat both increase the risk of bowel cancer”.

As I have mentioned, there has been a significant rise in the number of people who are becoming vegan—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Just before my hon. Friend moves off her point about balanced diets, will she tell us—perhaps for the benefit of those on the Conservative Benches who seem to be heckling about what is or is not a case for veganism—whether she agrees that it is entirely possible to have a healthy, balanced diet without eating any animal products whatever?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

That is true. As I said, I have been a vegan for nearly 20 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun has been one for 15 years, and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North has been one since time immemorial—well, since the 1970s, anyway. I think that we are all testament to the fact that people can survive perfectly well on a vegan diet—[ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun referred to the heckling. It is strange to have heckling in an Adjournment debate, and I think it is perhaps testament to the strength of our argument that people feel they have to mock what we are saying rather than joining in the debate.

I deal now with the environmental case for switching to a vegan diet. The 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, stated that the livestock industry was responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That is more than the transport sector, including aviation, which produces 13.5%, yet there is a huge public debate about aviation and virtually no debate about livestock. I secured a debate on this issue in Westminster Hall in 2009, and my hon. Friend Robert Flello subsequently made a valiant attempt to put the Sustainable Livestock Bill through the House, only for it to be blocked by the Government. I hope that the Minister will have time tonight to update the House on the progress of some of the promises that he made when he responded to a speech by my hon. Friend almost a year ago today.

Meat consumption is an incredibly inefficient way to feed the planet. It takes 8 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef. It takes 100 times as much water to produce 1 kg of beef as it does to grow 1 kg of vegetables. It takes almost 120 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of beef, compared with 2.2 calories to produce a single calorie of plant protein. It takes almost 21 square metres of land to produce 1 kg of beef, compared with 0.3 square metres to produce 1 kg of vegetables.

We hear a lot about biofuels and deforestation, but whereas in 2009 about 100 million tonnes of crops were being diverted to create biofuels, around 760 million tonnes were being used to feed animals. As Raj Patel wrote in his excellent book “Stuffed and Starved”:

“The amount of grains fed to US livestock would be enough to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet. The number of food-insecure people in the world in 2006 was, incidentally, 854 million”.

I am conscious that I have not mentioned fish at all during this debate. I would refer the House to the extremely powerful documentary “The End of the Line”, and also to the series “Fish Fight” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which highlights some of the issues to do with the sustainability of our fish stocks and the impact of over-fishing on our marine environment.

I conclude with some questions for the Minister. It was disappointing that at the climate change talks in Copenhagen, the environmental impact of the livestock sector was given little prominence. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that this issue has a higher priority on the agenda at Rio next year? Will it also be on the agenda at the climate change talks in Durban next month?

What discussions has the Minister had, or will he commit to having, on these issues with our EU counterparts, particularly in the context of reform of the common agricultural policy? According to Compassion in World Farming, at least 80% of the EU’s animals are factory farmed. What vision does the Minister have for the future of farming across the EU in terms of animal welfare standards, environmental impact and sustainability?

In respect of development policy and global food security, what consideration has been given to the health and environmental factors I have mentioned in terms of feeding the world’s growing population? Is this something that is ever discussed between DEFRA and the Department for International Development? What assessment have the Government made of the health benefits of a diet low in meat and dairy consumption? What guidance is given in the public sector—in schools, hospitals and prisons, for example—on the availability of vegan food with a view to meeting the needs of those who have chosen a vegan diet, and with a view to the health benefits?

What further progress can be made on food labelling so that vegans know whether the products they purchase are ethical or not? Can the Minister also confirm that when the EU directive on animal experimentation is transposed into UK law, it will not mean a lowering of standards? And finally, there is concern that the proposed network of marine protected areas to be established under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 next year will not adequately protect wildlife and that some of our most important marine wildlife sites could even be missed off altogether. Can the Minister provide reassurance on this point and perhaps tell us more about what he or his Department is doing to tackle over-fishing?

I appreciate that I have at times strayed somewhat outside the Minister’s brief, but I hope he can give clarity on at least some of the issues I have raised. I thank him for his patience in listening to me.

B

To say one course is ethical is to suggest that the other is unethical. This polarises the debate and fails to help people see a different point of view.

Submitted by Bruce Denney

Photo of James Paice James Paice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:42 pm, 1st November 2011

May I genuinely congratulate the hon. Lady on taking the opportunity to raise the issue of vegans on world vegan day and to elaborate on her thoughts and the views that she and her colleagues hold? She rightly identified at the outset that she and I will not agree on some of these issues, but I respect the intensity of her views, which she and I have exchanged several times over the Dispatch Box.

May I say, however, that I do not think hon. Lady helps her cause by some of the quite wide exaggerations she made in her speech? To talk about an intensive dairy farmer as being akin to a multi-storey car park is, frankly, ludicrous. There is no suggestion—

Photo of James Paice James Paice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady is saying something from a sedentary position—I will need to get this on the record, Mr Speaker—about cows on top of each other. There is no such question. The proposal at Nocton, which is now dead as a proposal anyway, did not involve a multi-storey facility. It does not do the cause any good to exaggerate like that.

I hope I can answer some of her questions. As she said, some of them have strayed a little from my brief. I think many of the answers are in the Foresight report, which was the Government’s chief scientific adviser published in January this year. That is all about the future of food and farming. It looks not just at the UK, but at the global demand and supply for food over the next 30 or 40 years up to 2050. We are having this debate on the day after the 7 billionth person was born on this planet; it is quite right to think about the security of our food supply across the globe.

There is no doubt that, as the Foresight report made clear, the current food system is consuming the world’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate. I agree with the hon. Lady about that. At this rate we will continue to degrade our environment, compromise the world’s capacity to produce food in the future, and contribute to climate change and further destruction of our biodiversity.

The status quo is not an option, which is why we in DEFRA have put the importance of sustainable food and farming at the forefront of what we are doing. It is the first priority of our business plan. It underpins everything. We are looking at the food chain in its entirety, with the aim of helping to secure an environmentally sustainable and healthy supply of food and creating the conditions for the agri-food sector to succeed. The Foresight report—this is relevant to one of the hon. Lady’s questions—highlighted the significance of dietary changes to the sustainability of our food supply, given that, as the hon. Lady rightly said, some foods require more resources for their production than others. We all need to play our part.

The most important people in all this are consumers. As the hon. Lady suggested, they can best be helped to make the choices that they want to make when they are receiving consistent messages about what constitutes a sustainable balanced diet, and, indeed, what the products that they are purchasing contain. By providing a robust evidence base, we can work closely with a wide range of partners to try to ensure that they are given that information.

The issue of diet is complex. Across the world, cultural, social and religious factors influence the make-up of what we eat. The Government do not believe that we should undermine those influences. We see value in encouraging people to think carefully about the environmental impact of the food that they eat. Groups such as the Vegan Society provide information for consumers and help to increase their knowledge. However, we also need to recognise that a vegan diet is not for everyone.

I must tell the hon. Lady that I was a bit confused about whether she was advocating veganism, was concerned about animal welfare, or was simply recommending a balanced diet involving a lower proportion of processed meat—with which recommendation, incidentally, I would entirely agree. We know that there are recommendations suggesting that people should not eat too much processed meat. However, that is a long stretch from the more extreme position of a vegan, which, as the hon. Lady said, means eating absolutely no products of animal origin. There is a great difference between the two positions. The Government recommend a balanced diet. We are not going to tell people what or what not to eat; we want people to be given information that will enable them to make informed choices.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of food labelling. As she knows, we are committed to improving it: that has been one of our prominent policies both in opposition and in government. As she also knows, there is currently no definition in law of the term “vegan”, and labelling products as vegan is entirely voluntary. However, if such labelling is used, consumers are protected by the law, because it is illegal to mislead them through false or misleading labelling. A new European Union regulation on the provision of food information to consumers will be published in the next few months, and will then enter into force in all member states. It covers the rules for general food and nutrition labelling, and requires the European Commission to draft a set of measures governing use of the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan”. I hope that that reassures that the hon. Lady that the issue is being, and will continue to be, addressed.

The Government’s promotion of advice on a balanced diet applies to vegetarians and vegans as well as to those who eat much more livestock products. A well-planned diet based on anything can be healthy as long as it contains the right balance of foods. The main issue that we face is, of course, obesity, which is a leading cause of serious diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It also costs the national health service £5 billion a year. The Government’s recently published document “Healthy lives, healthy people: a call to action on obesity in England” sets out how obesity will be tackled in the new public health and NHS systems, and the role that partners can play. Obesity is a serious problem, and it is the responsibility of individuals to change their behaviour to benefit their health. Most of us are eating or drinking more than we need to, and we are not active enough. Being overweight or obese is a consequence of eating more calories than we need.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The Minister says that diet and avoiding obesity are the responsibility of individuals. Does he not accept that companies such as McDonald’s ruthlessly and specifically target young children in order to force on them a diet that is wholly unhealthy and contributes considerably to the obesity crisis that the nation is currently experiencing?

Photo of James Paice James Paice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, I do not accept that. The hon. Member for Bristol East reeled off a list of vegan organisations, businesses and retailers in Bristol. They all have a right to advertise their wares as long as they are selling something that is lawful. I do not believe that it is for Government to tell them they should not do so.

What matters is that we encourage people to reduce the amount of calories they consume, in whatever form. As part of the Government’s ongoing Change4Life campaign, we are encouraging people to make the key simple changes: eat more fruit and vegetables; cut down on fatty foods, particularly unsaturated fats; reduce calorie consumption; and, of course, be more active.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

This section of the Minister’s speech sounds like filler to avoid talking about the issues I have raised. He said that it is important that people get the right balance in their diet. What do the Government regard as the right balance for eating red meat and processed meats in a diet?

Photo of James Paice James Paice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I cannot tell the hon. Lady that precisely. Such matters are the responsibilities of the Health Education Authority and the Department of Health. As she rightly said in her earlier comments, they are not part of my remit. There is a wealth of information, however, about balanced diets and recommended proportions and amounts, and 70 grams a day of meat is established as being a good figure.

The hon. Lady does me a disservice by suggesting I was not going to answer her questions, as I will do so. However, the points I am making now are important, and they are relevant to the question of balanced diets.

Returning to the Foresight report, which I mentioned earlier, it is clear that we need to achieve a sustainable food supply and to use the whole range of measures available to us. The hon. Lady made a point about the consumption of grain to produce meat. I have to say to her that two thirds of the world’s farming area is grass, and the only way to turn grass into food is to feed it through livestock. If we were to remove all that livestock from the system, the world would be a lot shorter of food. That is a simple fact, so what else is the hon. Lady going to do? She looks askance, but she should understand that large parts of the world will not grow grain as the terrain or climate is wrong, or the soil is too thin. Therefore, grass is the only option if that land is to produce food.

The hon. Lady also referred to the figure of 8 kg to produce 1 kg of beef. On the face of it, that is correct, but only if all the cattle are fed is grain. However, as I have just implied, a large proportion of the beef—and the sheepmeat—in this world is produced from grass. Many of the livestock never see a grain of cereal in their diet. That is the reality. Yes, there are beef feedlots in America where the cattle are fed only on grain, and in that context the figures the hon. Lady cites are right. However, to use them as if they apply to the whole industry across the world is entirely misleading. In fact, the bigger consumers of grain are pigs and poultry because they eat nothing else. They can be fed only on grain and soya bean.

On the subject of soya, the hon. Lady talked about the increasing desecration of the rain forest to produce arable crops, but the main such crop is soya bean, which is what most people who do not eat meat eat. How can one have a haggis made of soya? [Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael points out, it is possible to find vegetarian haggis. However, the point is that soya is the staple diet of people who do not eat meat.

J

Most soya is grown for animal feed. Also, growing soya for direct human consumption is a far more efficient land use than growing it for livestock.

Submitted by John Fellowes

Several hon. Members:

rose —

B

Soya's main use in the UK is as feed for livestock. ...

Submitted by Bruce Denney Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of James Paice James Paice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, I am not going to give way, as I do not have much time left.

I go back to my starting point of the Foresight report. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has signed up to a five-point action plan to take it forward, and that is very important. I shall now deal with the hon. Lady’s questions, and she will appreciate that I have had them for only a few minutes, although we did speak briefly before the debate. She asked about the climate change talks in Copenhagen and, to the best of my knowledge, the issue she mentioned is not on the agenda at the moment. She asked about our European counterparts and the common agricultural policy, and the answer is that we have not discussed veganism. I am not sure precisely what she wants us to talk to them about, but it is very early days in the reform of the CAP. At the moment, there is no unanimity on the Commission’s proposals for CAP reform.

The hon. Lady alleges that 80% of the European Union’s animals are factory farmed. I suppose that that depends on the definition of “factory farming”, but I find it difficult to believe. I have spoken about development policy and global food security; that is all covered in the Foresight report. She asked about the assessment we have made of the health benefits of a diet low in meat and dairy consumption, and, again, I have addressed the point. It is a matter of balance. It is not a question of doing without those things; it is question of keeping the intake to a sensible level. The figures are available from the various Government bodies. I have addressed the issue of food labelling; it is going to be resolved.

As for the hon. Lady’s question about the EU directive on animal experimentation, I am afraid that I do not know the answer. It is a matter for the Home Office and I cannot answer that. On the establishment of the proposed network of marine protected areas, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Richard Benyon, is working very hard on this, along with Natural England. To the best of my knowledge, they will be making sure that wildlife is protected. But that is a long way from the implication that we should not be eating fish, which I thought was her approach.

I hope that I have answered the hon. Lady’s main principles. As I said at the outset, we are not going to agree entirely on this issue, but she has raised it and the House has heard what she has to say.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.