Since receiving the news of Peter Melchett’s death, I have felt great sadness. I have also talked with others in the Sustain alliance sharing stories of their own loss, and their relationships with a man variously described as powerful, compelling, a mentor, a father figure, intelligent, stubborn and (my favourite) “chuckly”.
I have watched film showing a younger Peter pulling up GM sweetcorn, in his characteristically direct way, wearing an uncharacteristic white boiler suit. And I have enjoyed hearing his distinctive voice and warm chuckle again, in excerpts from Desert Island Discs and environmental news reports. We are privileged that so much will survive of his work, voice and spirit.
For nine years, I served as the consumer representative on the Soil Association’s processing standards committee. I went on to work with Peter and Jo Lewis on the Food for Life catering mark standards committee, developing the systematic approach to improving school and hospital food, step by principled and pragmatic step – building a large-scale market for fresh, healthy, local and sustainable food. For several years, I have also had the great privilege of working closely with Peter, as a member of the steering group for the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics – a role in which he shone.
Reading the obituaries, I have now become far more aware of the breath-taking range of things that Peter threw himself into during his life. These paint a picture of a campaigning free-wheeler, a man who sat on Cabinet, taught biological sciences, read law, campaigned on cannabis, pulled up GM sweetcorn, cut nuclear installation fences, had a family, ran a farm, won wildlife legislation, placed hundreds of legislative amendments, loved curlews, got imprisoned, harangued pharmaceutical representatives about antibiotics, and hugged people and mentored them and chuckled a lot… Extraordinary in so many ways.
I feel gutted that Peter will not live to see a major campaign milestone that is achingly close to being won: a complete EU-wide ban on the prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock farming. When we eventually celebrate (and the celebration will be roof-raising), then lift your glass to Peter and know that he played an important part in achieving it. And as you think of him, think about what more we can do to honour his memory, and the lives, work and passion of so many of our campaigning colleagues. I feel that the very best tribute to Peter will be to step up the fight for good food, grown well, in a way that means soil, bees, farmers, and yes – curlews – can all thrive.