Catherine Cannon has campaigned for animals in various ways since she became vegetarian at the age of 14. Her work as teacher of English as a foreign language has taken her to various countries including Japan, India and Oman. Now back at home in Somerset, UK, she leads the campaign for Plant-Based Councils, which began during lockdown and urges councils to help make plant-based eating the norm, as part of their commitment to tackling the climate emergency.
LN: I know your mother grew up on a dairy farm. Did that lead to your interest and concern for animals as well as your decision to become vegetarian at quite a young age?
Catherine: Yes, my mum's farming connection certainly had some influence. We lived very close to her old farm and often took walks there, and my parents had a small paddock that was let to a local farmer, usually for sheep. I remember spending hours in there one spring with some friendly lambs, who would climb all over me. On a visit to the farm of a family friend when I was 14, I was shown inside the large shed where pigs were kept. It was a shocking experience, and I didn't eat meat or fish after that. Around this time, I also read a lot about deforestation in the Amazon, and how the meat industry was directly responsible for much of it.
LN: That must have taken some determination. Did you find yourself at odds with the rest of your family? (I think you're still the only vegetarian, now fully vegan.)
CC: My family were actually very supportive, although I do remember my dad saying he thought it was a 'fad' that I'd grow out of! My parents were traditional eaters - we were a 'meat and two veg' family - so for the first few years I usually ate what they did with a serving of kidney beans or chickpeas instead of the meat. As I got older, I began to cook for myself and sometimes for them as well, and soon my mum began to enjoy concocting veggie dishes. After graduating from university, I lived in various countries - including Japan and Spain - and yes, maintaining a meat-free diet in those countries required some effort! I remember one time ordering a salad in a restaurant in Japan, and it arriving with grated dried bacon on top! I also spent time living in India and Oman where I adopted the habit of eating lentils and pulses with every meal. Although my cooking was mostly plant-based, unfortunately I didn't stop consuming dairy and eggs until I returned to the UK in 2019 (I find it hard to fathom why it took me so long), and since then my mum has enjoyed making vegan cakes, which I think she sees as a new challenge. My family still eats meat and dairy occasionally, but their diets are now largely plant-based.
LN: What were the first campaigns you became involved with? Did you start by joining groups or organisations, or by campaigning on your own?
CC: As a teenager, I joined WWF, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB. It was 'armchair activism', I signed petitions and wrote letters - this was all
long before the internet of course. I spoke to people about the environmental impact of the meat industry and the cruelty involved, but as I spent almost 20 years living abroad, in countries with
different cultures and languages, this was not always easy. For a long time, I think I was immensely frustrated with the world and with my own lack of action on the issues that I cared about
most, but I just didn't know what to do. When Extinction Rebellion came along I returned to the UK and began to devote most of my time to activism.
LN: As animal advocates who use social media for our campaigning, we see horrible cruelty almost daily. How do you guard against feeling overwhelmed by that?
CC: I do my best to avoid seeing graphic images and video - it took me several days to recover from watching Dominion. Knowing that I'm doing what I can to help shift society towards plant-based eating certainly helps guard against feeling overwhelmed and grieved by climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.
LN: You became involved with Plant-Based Councils in its early days, and now work for the campaign with great determination. How did that come about?
CC: The Plant-Based Councils campaign was started by a small group of people from Animal Rebellion in Hackney, London, in November 2020. I saw a post online, went to an introductory talk and immediately saw it as something logical and achievable that had the potential to create a huge cultural shift, to transform what we see as normal. Originally, the campaign had the aim of encouraging local authorities to include more plant-based options in school lunches, but we learned that most local authorities no longer have control over school meals, and when they do, they are managed and contracted out in numerous complex ways. Additionally, ProVeg's 'School Plates' programme was already doing fantastic work in this area. So we shifted our attention to asking local authorities to opt for plant-based in their own catering, which is, of course, the logical next step after declaring a climate emergency. We are also asking local authorities to consider what else within their remit can be done to promote and normalise plant-based eating - such as including more plant-based options in leisure centres, council-run cafes, care homes and schools.
LN: You're very good at inspiring, organising and encouraging others. Has your previous career helped with that?
CC: I worked as a teacher of English as a foreign language for 20 years, and also trained as a primary school teacher. I've also worked as a Bikeability instructor and as a sustainable transport advocate for Sustrans. I am lucky to be working alongside other dedicated people in the Plant-Based Councils campaign - we really do have a fantastic team.
LN: What have been the most satisfying achievements of the campaign so far? What are your aims?
CC: Oxfordshire County Council's successful motion, which you had a large part in, was certainly an early highlight. This created a lot of media interest, and I was heartened by the resolute attitude of councillors who were not deterred by the media backlash, knowing they had taken the right path and were showing true leadership. When Oxford City Council followed the County lead a year later, it was really encouraging to hear the overwhelming and unanimous support across the council. Perhaps for me, the most satisfying achievement was when Exeter City Council voted to serve fully plant-based food at their internal events, developing further policy to raise awareness of the benefits of plant-based food and to increase and improve its availability throughout the city. I lived in Exeter for several years and worked with councillors on their motion, so it was wonderful to see the level of support from councillors across the authority and also from local NHS doctors.
We aim to have motions debated in at least ten local authorities in 2023. We believe that all councils which have declared a climate emergency should be taking steps to encourage people to eat more plant-based, in the same way that they already encourage people to recycle and reduce energy use. Making a commitment to go fully plant-based in internal council catering sends a powerful message and is a great way for elected leaders to play their part in supporting the changes society needs to make. At the very least, we want to see councils discussing the impact of animal farming whenever they discuss climate and biodiversity loss.
LN: Can you see a future in which we have very different attitudes to intensive farming and using animals for our own ends?
CC: Yes. Call me an optimist but I believe that in my lifetime we will see the end of animals and their products being seen as a normal source of food - in the UK and western Europe at least. There are so many organisations working to achieve this, and the climate science and health advice is on our side. Companies are realising the potential of the plant-based food market and emerging technologies for meat alternatives will play a part.
More importantly, it's clear that our relationship with animals and the natural world is broken, and our actions are not aligned with our values. I think that as a nation of animal lovers, we will be nudged into thinking about who we want to be as a society. I have faith in humanity to ultimately do much better.
LN: You seem to me to work tirelessly. How do you unwind?
CC: I love to cycle and sleep under the stars. Whenever the weather is nice and I have time, I go on a bicycle tour - the simplicity of camping and
cycling is a perfect way to unwind and enjoy nature.
LN: Thanks so much, Catherine - all power to you, with your determination and dedication. The work you're doing is so important in changing attitudes towards sustainable eating. I hope, now that the Plant-Based Councils campaign is gathering momentum, many more councils will pass motions this year and that we'll all start to see plant-based eating as the norm!
If you'd like to find out more about Plant-Based Councils, visit our website. We have regular introductory talks, so if you'd like to persuade your local council to move towards plant-based catering, do come along and learn how!