Chef, cook-book writer and occasional government advisor Jackie Kearney kindly agreed to an interview about veganism, our petition for a seventh scrutiny committee, and – well, read on!
I changed my career in health and social research, after reaching the UK MasterChef final in 2011. I’ve been vegetarian since I was about 14 and I am still the only vegetarian contestant to make it to the final. I initially ran a street food business called The Hungry Gecko, from a 6m airstream trailer in a pub back garden in South Manchester. I reached the finals of the British Street Food Awards in 2012, with runner–up for best main dish. There were no plant-based categories back then. My dish of Thai-style Smoky Tofu & Nam Prik with Kanom Jeen noodles served with Salsify Fritters & Indonesian style smashed cukes was beaten by one point with fish and chips. I guess it still prickles a little bit. Haha!
I started writing a travel blog long before MasterChef. We had travelled extensively as a family across Asia overland, and I had originally been writing about that – but it was clearly dominated by food on reflection. It was my extended time away, with several years in total spent in the Indian sub-continent and SE Asia, that made me realise that I wanted to write about this amazing food, mostly plant-based, that we had enjoyed on our travels. My background in sociology and ethnography was something that played a big part in wanting to tell stories around food, at the same time as making plant-based recipes more accessible and appealing to a wider audience. In 2013 I helped manage the MasterChef street food bus, working around the country and by the end of the following year I found a publisher for my first book Vegan Street Food. This went on to win Peta UK Cookbook of the Year in 2016. I published my second book My Vegan Travels in 2017, which was nominated for an Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award in 2018. I published Vegan Mock Meat Revolution and Vegan Christmas during the following year.
You were on a government select committee about vegan and veggie food labelling. When was this, how did it come about, what was the outcome, and what advice do you have for people dealing with strange and frustrating bureaucratic processes?
I was contacted last year by a UK Government’s Select Committee who were reviewing the evidence around food labelling, the use of mock meat and vegan meat terminology and responding to the pressure they were clearly under from the meat industry including from other European countries. The use of terms like sausage and burger were debated, and whether there are terms that are unique only to the meat industry and would be confusing to the public. Myself, the Vegan and Vegetarian Societies and representatives from Quorn all argued a strong case for why the meat industry is wrong to try to ring-fence terms that actually act as a signifier to all, omnis, pescetarians, veggies and vegans, of where and how to use a product (ie; vegan mince, vegan steak, faux fish etc) and thus impacting people’s eating behaviour that may help environmental targets. The Committee ruled in our favour and accepted that ‘mock meat’ terms have been around since the ancient Chinese Dynasties, and are indeed an important part of shifting eating patterns to more plant-based, and thus have an important environmental link. They also recognised that current UK labelling regulations more than adequately identify a ‘mock’ product and that none of this would undermine Controlled Destination of Origin (DOC) labelling either.
You’re passionate about encouraging plantbased eating amongst omnivores & veggies, but not vegan). So, before we call the “vegan police” on you, why not? And what are your main reasons for wanting more plantbased eating – is it animal cruelty, environmental impact, climate impact, health, something else?
I became vegetarian when I was 13 or 14 because I loved animals (I lived on a horse yard, with neighbouring farms and rural communities) and I simply didn’t want to eat them anymore. In later years I understood more about the dairy industry and became very selective about when and where I eat dairy. As I live in rural Italy now, this an easy way to live here when you live amongst small high quality producers. I’m also driven more by environmental concerns in my choices, we know so much more now than we did 30 years ago. So I will choose to eat sheep’s cheese or goat’s yoghurt over avocados. It’s a personal choice in my opinion. We all tolerate some level of cognitive dissonance and the more complex the world becomes, the harder it is to reason one strand. I am now in my 50s. My health and wellbeing have also become more of a priority, so consuming less dairy and eating the right nutrients has been important for my diet, and creating more healthful vegan recipes has been a big part of that.
As someone who grew up with horses for example, I also see a very hard line from some vegans and I think this intolerance is not helpful to moving forward widespread environmental change. Getting vegans to eat more vegan food won’t change the world but getting more omni’s and pescatarians to eat less meat and fish, and vegetarians to eat less dairy, would have a huge impact! Of course there will also be those who take a more devout line, and of course that should be someone’s own choice. But I refuse to allow our minor differences to divide us from the bigger picture.
[You mentioned a current controversy over the company Oatly. What’s the controversy, and what is your position?]
Which brings us nicely to the Oatly debate. This is what Oatly want to achieve – reach as many as possible with switching their dairy consumption out – they did it with supermarkets by improving and expanding product placement for plant-based milks and dairy products. They have recently taken a huge investment from an equity fund that has upset many vegans and environmentalists. They don’t understand why Oatly didn’t seek this funding from a sustainable and ethical source. But Oatly want to talk profit with the big boys of the equity world. The ones with the four trillion dollars. And make them see just what kinds of profits they could make if they invested that money in more sustainable enterprises. The Trump connection with the equity fund CEO has upset many as he is well known to be a climate denier, but there were many who supported Trump for tax reasons. Not because they disagree he’s an appalling human being. Sadly money talks. But that is what Oatly is trying to do. Talk the money game and for that I admire their courage and conviction.
Avocados? Wait, what? Why are avocados bad?
Avocados are a terrible cash crop. They deplete resources in the communities where they are grown and they are a fresh food trafficked by air to reach us in peak condition. I’m not saying I don’t give in to the odd treat. Especially when I’m in the UK as they are so cheap. But here in Italy, anything flown from abroad is very expensive and highly taxed. As it should be if we want to improve our farming footprint. One avocado might cost you £5 here – a stark reminder of the true cost. This is where the conflict between health and wellbeing and the environment may intersect, as we all need the healthy oils and amino acids in our diets. If you compare a rope-grown, sustainably farmed oyster or mussel to an avocado that has been flown halfway around the world, I think for some people, to balance dietary needs and plant-based approaches, it is a better decision to choose a non-sentient bivalve than a tropical fruit, for personal health and for the environment – and I would argue for the animals too. Environmental damage affects sentient animals, and bivalves are not. But people have differing opinions and I respect that. These are relatively minor issues that separate our beliefs and values. We all want to create a kinder and more sustainable world to live in for all and we need to remember that and work together.
If you’ve ever been involved in any campaigns that used petitions, any advice you’ve got, because we’re trying to get signatures from another 3000ish people who live, work or study in Manchester City Council’s boundaries before November 10th, so that there is a debate about setting up a scrutiny committee that looks just at the climate emergency.
Campaigning is hard, especially these days when there are so many groups that need attention on so many serious issues. Accessing local networks is key of course, and also talking face-to-face with people, and reaching people in a more personal way so they can understand what needs to be achieved and why. People often feel helpless in the face of the onslaught of information and issues we face, but localised concerns are easier to show people. And I truly think local action is the way to change things on an everyday basis.
Anything else you’d like to say (books, webcasts, podcasts etc that you’d like to plug, favourite recipes etc)
There are lots of vegan and veggie recipes available on my website, thehungrygecko.com and my recipe books, Vegan Street Food, My Vegan Travels, Vegan Mock Meat Revolution and Vegan Christmas are all available from any good bookshop or online supplier. I currently live in the coastal mountains of Liguria, building a sustainable wellness retreat in the remote woodlands – eventually for yoga, plant-based dining & cookery school, shinrin yoku (forest-bathing) and simply immersion and relaxation in the natural wilderness. You can follow our Italian project @wellnessitaly and also other adventures @thehungrygecko on Instagram.