What I'm Made of: Peter Melchett
As part of our 'What I’m Made Of' campaign for Organic Beauty & Wellbeing Week (7th-13th May 2018), we’re asking some of the most inspirational people we know, what they’re made of.
Peter Melchett- Policy Director, Soil Association
Peter, what is your role at Soil Association and how did you get here?
I am the Policy Director, covering the full range of our campaigning work, promoting healthy diets - particularly in schools and hospitals - promoting the huge benefits of organic farming, telling people why all cotton should be organic, and campaigning for honesty and transparency in beauty products, and the expansion of certified organic health and beauty products.
What’s been your proudest moment at Soil Association so far?
The Soil Association has played the key role in transforming the food that young people in the UK eat in schools, and when they go out for a meal on the high street. This work, called Food for Life, was inspired by a school cook, Jeanette Orrey, who came to us in 2003 when school meals were in a spiral of decline – forced to go for the lowest price, quality and take-up were plummeting, just as the horrendous problems of childhood malnutrition and obesity were becoming apparent. Jeanette inspired us to start a campaign. Despite huge initial opposition, with Jamie Oliver's help, we got junk food like turkey twizzlers banned from schools, and new school meals standards introduced. Our own healthy, environmentally friendly and locally sourced standards, Food for Life Served Here, now cover 1.7 million meals daily, in nurseries, schools including over half the primary schools in England, universities, hospitals, care homes, visitor attractions and workplaces.
What do you like most about working at Soil Association?
First, I am an organic farmer, and I love working to promote and explain the system of food production which I believe in so strongly. The Soil Association is, I think, unique amongst campaigning groups in the extent to which it also delivers solutions. This applies, of course, to our certification of organic farming and 75% of the organic food sold in the UK, but as I've said, we are also promoting schemes to revolutionise children's food in schools and nurseries, the food patients are served in hospitals, and through campaigning work with high street restaurants and visitor centres, the food children eat when they go out for a treat. Food, what we wear and health are fundamental to human life, and the Soil Association is involved in all of, with positive solutions.
Why do you think the 'What I’m Made Of' Campaign is important?
One thing that still surprises me is just how secretive companies can be about products which they expect us to happily eat or spread on our bodies. In my lifetime, we've seen an explosion of information about the products we buy, how and where they are made, where the ingredients or raw materials come from, and so on. But in the areas where we work, with farming, health and beauty, and textiles, with still have a long way to go to anything like full transparency or honesty. We've had enough food scandals for people to be wary about how food is produced, and some of the concerns about ingredients used in beauty products have certainly driven the huge increase in interest in organic health and beauty products. But, this is an area where the term ‘organic’ is not protected by law, as it is with food, and we see terrible misuse, with labels suggesting products are organic when they contain ingredients which we would never allow, or contain only a tiny proportion of organic ingredients amongst the sea of non-organic. Greater transparency is inevitable, and companies will come to be judged on their honesty, not the slickness of the advertising, and the Soil Association will do all we can to hasten that day.
Who or what inspires you?
Working in the Soil Association, it would be impossible not to be inspired by Lady Eve Balfour, who back in the 1930s, with a farsightedness which I still find hard to credit, saw the dangers of chemical and industrial farming and food production, and started the Soil Association the fight against those dangers. I am inspired by Rachel Carson, who was the first person to identify the harmful effects which pesticides were having on wildlife and human health. Like other pioneers, she was vilified by the chemical industry and politicians, but her book, ‘Silent Spring’ remains an inspiration - we miss her determination to speak the truth about the damage pesticides are doing today. Another writer, Marion Shoard, author of 'Theft of the Countryside', opened my eyes to the scale of the destruction of the British countryside through the 1960s and 70s, and the importance of the commonplace and everyday – the scrap of woodland near where people live, the hedges at the back of the garden – all were then being ripped out in the name of industrial agriculture. And finally, the great British photographer, Fay Godwin, taught me the importance of human relationships with nature and landscape -whether the remnants of Roman forts or allotments, and smallholdings on the edge of the city, Fay saw the importance of those gentle, idiosyncratic relationships between people and our countryside.
Best career advice you've been given?
I took part in an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration at a US Air Force Base near our farm in Norfolk in the early 1980s, and while I was giving a speech deploring the appalling risk that these weapons posed, someone called Lady Olga Maitland, with a small counter-demonstration called - I think, ‘families for the bomb’ - called out to me ‘Peter, Peter, think of your career!’. Immediately after that, with many others, I symbolically cut a link in the fence around the base and was arrested, and my subsequent criminal conviction helped get me a job at Greenpeace, where I worked for 15 years!