Tributes to our friend and colleague Peter Melchett

Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association and a member with Sustain of the steering group of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, passed away peacefully on 29 August 2018. Antibiotics campaigner Emma Rose and Sustain chief executive Kath Dalmeny pay personal tribute.

As a friend, mentor, campaigner, colleague and inspiration to many, we are going to miss Peter in lots of ways. The formal obituaries are available online - the rather good Guardian piece is here, and a lot of information about Peter is in his Wikipedia entry. So we wanted to pay Peter a more personal tribute and invited close colleague and friend Emma Rose to write a piece.

Personal tribute from Emma Rose

Emma worked closely with Peter for several years when she was coordinator of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.

Emma Rose has set up a website where you can share your own personal stories and tributes to Peter Melchett, and read those of others: https://celebratingpeter.wordpress.com

Like so many others, I was deeply sad to hear of Peter Melchett's death. Sad on behalf of a community that has lost one of our most celebrated pillars, but also for the loss of a personal mentor and friend.

The years I knew and worked with Peter, first at the Soil Association, and then at the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, were some of the most colourful I've experienced. In this time, I came to know a man who cared deeply about the earth, its landscapes, wildlife and people, and who had dedicated his professional life to protecting them. Armed with a fierce intellect, extraordinary breadth of experience, and an immutable certainty in the legitimacy of his own opinions, he fought tirelessly for what he believed in.

I also came to know a kind man, who would throw his considerable weight behind individuals with the same conviction that he applied to his work. When recruiting me to run the Antibiotics Alliance he was nothing if not persistent. When I did my best to assure him that I didn't have the tools for the job, he told me in no uncertain terms to get on with it, before adding that he would make himself available to provide support where needed.

I remember well, very early into the job, when the opportunity for a slot on Radio 4's Today Programme presented itself. Peter looked at me and said: "You’ll do it." I must have looked suitably appalled, because he followed this with: "I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t know you could." Thanks to the combination of Grexit and the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, our story was knocked off the schedule. But this, for me, was entirely representative of Peter’s unique ability to raise the bar of self-expectation by the sheer force of his will. This trait, I think, is entirely commensurate with his success as a campaigner: his ambition for progressive environmental and societal change was matched by his certainty that the people around him were fully capable of rising to this challenge.

Over the next few years, I learnt a huge amount from working alongside Peter. His candour, keen instinct and willingness to share his expertise (indeed, he never exactly struggled to keep opinions to himself...) were an invaluable resource which I often drew upon.

I discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed his company, and that we each possessed the ability to make the other laugh. This proved to be a useful shared asset in the event of clashes - which we had our fair share of. My personal favourite was a whispered but heated dispute in the waiting room of Portcullis House, where I eventually told him that he was "relentlessly old school", to which he roared with laughter and retorted: "cheeky monkey" - which rather diffused the argument.

Only once did I get the opportunity to quiz him at length about his early campaigning days. We were out for supper with a mutual friend, and he regaled us with stories from his time as an activist, Cabinet Minister, anti GM campaigner, farmer (previously non-organic before switching to organic in 2000), and Greenpeace Director. It was then that I realised the breadth of Peter’s circle of impact. Not only did his footprint extend to the corners of the environmental movement, but he enjoyed a unique perspective gained through holding numerous positions within this space.

It is no overstatement for me to say that Peter has had a truly significant and lasting impact on my professional and personal development. The significance of this lies in the fact that this also holds true for so many others. Mine is one of numerous stories. And, as we come to terms with his death, this is a comforting thought - that his lasting legacy is not only his innumerable achievements, but is also the people who have been lucky enough to learn from him. In this way, his work will endure - as younger generations take the places of older generations, and continue their pursuit of a society that values the well-being of its people and the environment above all else.

Peter - you will be much missed.

Personal tribute from Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of Sustain

Since receiving the news of Peter Melchett's death, I have felt great sadness. I have also talked with others in our 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.

Blogs

Peter Melchett at his farm in Norfolk. Credit: Georgina Rose Thomas