Alison Reynolds

Peter was a wonderful boss at Greenpeace UK: funny and irreverent on the one hand but prepared to dig very deeply into detail. I had numerous personal experiences of helping to persuade Peter to agree plans that put the organisation at risk in taking direct actions. Oh how we dreaded those “inquisitions” before the go-ahead was given – or otherwise – but the Actions Unit certainly appreciated Peter’s thoroughness and preparedness to go for it, giving us priceless and memorable opportunities to do our “thing”.

Thank You Peter, I learned a great deal from you, Alison

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Rosie Boycott

I am so sad to hear of Peter’s death. I never saw enough of him but when I was lucky enough to do so, I was always inspired by his enthusiasm, knowledge and energy. Above all, Peter was always positive. A glass half-full man, who believed we could, together, sort it all out. He was one of a kind and I feel very lucky to have known him.

Maude Winkler 

Peter always took the time to say hello and ask me how I was on a Wednesday morning like all of the Soil Association staff did and still do for those of you that dont know my name is Maude Winkler-Reid and I have been a volunteer at the Soil Association for over 15 years now doing various things but Peter always had such a kind look on his face he was always very friendly and kind and approachable and would always make time to say hi to me xxx

Lizzie Vann

Peter would hate to think we are devastated by his demise, but that was my first reaction on hearing the news. Overwhelmed – how could this be? What a vacuum, a loss, a stunning silence.

Peter was a wonderful man, who made the best possible use of his time with us, a huge gift, and a shining example of a life well-lived. Taking the advantages and handicaps of a privileged start, and giving of himself, and everything he had for progressive causes. But more than that – Peter did his work in a way that ennobled the causes, and built long-lasting confidence in those that worked alongside him.

He taught me so much about the workings of political bureaucracy – gleefully dragging me and Jeannette Orrey in to see the Departments of Health and then of Education, as we laid the long term foundations of Food for Life. Teaching us to argue, reason, and use facts to literally batter the anonymous civil servants who stood in the way of progress. And if that did not work, to leapfrog them and find someone who would listen. His amazing political experience and maverick approach, plus his charisma and wicked sense of humor eventually won over all the obstacles – the supermarkets, the administrators, the politicians. Even Tony Blair.

What I remember most about him was long train journeys as we travelled the country, full of jokes and wicked anecdotes, laughter and kindness. Peter, I cannot believe that you are not part of progress any more. The world is a sadder place without you. But we will honor your legacy by taking your example and tackling all those challenges with humanity, kindness, patience and above all – persistence! You are so loved and so missed.

Charles Redfern

I’m a bit surprised to hear of Peter’s passing. It’s not as if I knew him well or met him often – a few times at an IFOAM meeting or at a Soil Association do but he was a very knowledgeable man for sure and I was aware of his interesting career and deep commitment to environmental causes. More important I have a sense that he was a gentle, caring and kind soul and I feel a small sense of loss. I wish his friends and family well.

Claire Robinson

We are very sorry to hear of the death of Peter Melchett, policy director of the UK Soil Association and a dear personal friend to us at GMWatch.

As well as being an unfailingly kind and generous man, Peter was a giant figure in the environmental and organic movements. During the 1990s, while he was director at Greenpeace UK, he took up the issue of GM crops and foods and was instrumental in making it a campaign topic.

We at GMWatch are immensely grateful to Peter for innumerable kindnesses. It would be easy to imagine that someone who was a leading light of major NGOs would have little time for grassroots campaigners, but with Peter that was never the case. Whenever we were in difficulties, Peter was ready to lend practical advice and support.

That included financial support. The first time Peter donated funds to GMWatch was after he and Greenpeace had won a libel case against a Scottish newspaper over a scandalous attack on him that we later tracked back to Monsanto’s PR people. Peter donated all of his settlement to us and two other small NGOs campaigning on GMOs and biodiversity.

His early career had been in politics. In the 1970s, and still in his twenties, he had been minister for Northern Ireland in the UK government under prime minister James Callaghan. He was responsible for a vast range of social policy, including health and education. In Northern Ireland he gained a reputation for courage in taking up causes involving human rights and social justice, even when they did not fall within his official brief.

The senior civil servant Maurice Hayes wrote about him, “He went out as often as he could and on whatever pretext to what were regarded ‘difficult areas’ – generally places that no minister had ever visited before, or any representative of government more exalted or benign than a policeman or a summons server – and found the people always glad to see him.”

Peter’s political acumen made him ideally suited to dealing with the GM issue in a way that people could relate to and that would make politicians sit up and take note. In 1999 Peter was involved in two memorable campaign actions aimed at drawing public attention to the risks of GM crops. One involved dumping a truckload of soybeans outside 10 Downing Street. At the time, Tony Blair was UK prime minister and Bill Clinton was the US president. A banner on the truck read, “Tony, Don’t Swallow Bill’s Seed” – a punning reference to Clinton’s impeachment hearing related to his misdemeanours with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Peter was also one of a band of volunteer reapers who ripped up a GM maize field trial in Norfolk. He was arrested and he spent a night in jail. The case came to court in 2000 and Peter and his 27 co-defendants were unanimously acquitted by a jury on the grounds that they acted in the public interest. After the verdict, the jury even waited outside the court to shake the hands of Peter and his co-defendants.

He converted his farm in west Norfolk to organic in 2000.

After stepping down from Greenpeace he became policy director of the Soil Association in 2002. He kept the organisation at the forefront of opposition to GM crops. He initiated the Soil Association campaign, “Not in Our Bread”, which raised awareness about glyphosate residues in bread.

He was still campaigning right to the end of his life. Late last year he organised an event at the Royal Society of Medicine which looked at the health risks associated with low level pesticide exposure. It was a great success and attracted considerable media attention. And in just the last few weeks, he had a letter published in a Sunday newspaper objecting to attacks on the European Court of Justice judgement that gene editing technology should be treated as GM.

Peter’s support for GMWatch in the face of attacks was typical of his lifelong habit of standing up for the little guy in the face of what he saw as injustice. We will miss him more than words can say.

Published on GM Watch