The TV presenter has little time for the NFU and is also targeting the ‘catastrophic’ salmon fishing industry. But he believes a new rice brand can help make a difference

“Oh, look, a lapwing.” Chris Packham pauses mid-rant against the NFU to admire a passing bird before seamlessly returning his focus to the farming union’s repeated failures.

It’s somewhat apt the small wading bird interrupting the conversation is in chronic decline in the UK: its population has crashed by almost 60% since the 1960s due to intensification of farming methods and changes to grassland management.

“I’m afraid I really don’t have a tremendous amount of time for the NFU,” he says. “I don’t think they’re a union. They’re an agricultural lobbying body that represents big farmers. They don’t do a lot for little farmers. Their policies are pretty obviously anti-environmental quite a lot of the time, and they have too much sway in government. It’s high time they were put in their place.”

Clearly, Packham doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to giving nature a voice. Despite turning 63 in a few days, he shows no sign of slowing down in his tireless campaigning for animal welfare. And earlier this year, the Springwatch presenter became personally involved in fmcg, backing the UK launch of ‘planet-positive’ rice brand, Ibis.

“We can’t hide from the fact we’re going to have to change our practices and eat less meat”

With spring finally in the air, he meets The Grocer at the London Wetland Centre, an extraordinary, man-made wetland on the banks of the Thames near Barnes, opened in 2000 by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, where Packham serves as a vice-president. He’s in his element among the tufted ducks, chiffchaffs and cetti’s warblers at this oasis hidden away from the bustle of the capital.

His next campaign target will be the salmon farming industry, which he views as “catastrophic” for fish welfare and the environment.

The broadcaster, naturalist and conservationist has ruffled plenty of feathers in the course of a near 40-year career on television.

For example, he branded Jeremy Clarkson – arguably the UK’s most high-profile farmer – “a massive cockchafer” on Twitter in November when the Diddly Squat owner criticised David Attenborough and the latest series of Planet Earth in a column for The Sun.

Name: Chris Packham

Place of birth: Southampton

Lives: New Forest in Hampshire

Family: One sister, four years younger, eminent in the fashion business dressing the rich and famous

Potted CV: Zoology degree from University of Southampton; trained as a wildlife cameraman; presented The Really Wild Show; now presents Springwatch and Winterwatch

Best advice received: Clint Eastwood in the 1970s, when he said: “A man has to know his limitations.” I’ve always tried to recognise mine

Hero: Mainly those young people who are forefront activists, such as Greta Thunberg. Phoebe Plummer and Cressida Gethin, who are Just Stop Oil activists. All the young people who took part in Eight Out of Ten Bats last year, our project that we put on in the autumn. They inspire me and I think inspiration is a good source of hero worship

Food or drink brand you admire most: Those doing the most to reduce packaging and processing, so I would say nature’s raw carrot. I’m partial to a raw carrot. I don’t care if it’s got dirt on it.

Career highlight: Flying in a two-seater spitfire making a film for the BBC was pretty special. We flew over the place I got my kestrel from in the 1970s. In wildlife terms, too many to mention. I’ve been very fortunate in my career

How you’d change the food industry: We need to eat less meat and transition to plant-based

Favourite film: Blade Runner, the first one

Favourite album: Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain

Favourite book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Death row meal: Beyond Burger and chips

A brand with purpose

The grocery industry is also often in Packham’s line of fire, whether he’s joining residents in Bath objecting to a Lidl planning application that would lead to the destruction of habitats, pressuring supermarkets to improve their animal welfare practices or, more recently, calling Heineken an “environmental vandal” after it cleared an apple orchard in preparation to sell the land.

Ibis Rice is his first direct move into fmcg, though. Launched by the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cambodia, the brand has a mission to save the critically endangered giant ibis, the country’s national bird, which has been pushed to the edge of extinction by habitat loss, deforestation and illegal hunting. The business pays farmers a premium price (up to 70% above the market rate) for their crop in exchange for a pledge to use sustainable organic methods and not to deforest or poach.

Ibis also packs and processes the rice itself in Cambodia to eliminate unnecessary steps in the supply chain, before shipping direct to retailers including Planet Organic, Whole Foods Market and independent organic retailer Better Food, as well as directly to consumers from its UK online shop.

Packham says the paddy-to-plate business model is simple but achieves all its conservation aims.

Chris Packham

Chris Packham with products by Ibis Rice, a Cambodian sustainable rice company he is supporting

“A model like this should and could work even in the UK, but at the moment our farming practices are not delivering environmentally sustainable outcomes, and that’s why we’re one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world,” he says.

He laments the difficulty of securing more mainstream grocery listings for a brand with purpose at its heart.

“Ibis Rice is a premium product and ideally suited for Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, as well as others, but there’s still this system where they effectively must buy their way on to the shelves, and that’s not acceptable. What should be going on supermarket shelves is food that’s healthy, has been sustainably sourced and has good animal welfare standards.

“In an ideal world, I would love to see a sticker that tells you the economic price in pounds and pence, and the environmental cost of producing it, so consumers can make an informed ethical decision.”


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Packham has spent years cajoling, campaigning, and pleading with all the UK’s food retailers to improve standards, particularly when it comes to chicken welfare. His latest impassioned plea came in March in a personal video message to the new Co-op chair, Debbie White, asking her to finally adopt the Better Chicken Commitment.

He puts his head in hands (a pose of exasperation he strikes many times over a range of topics) as he mulls the glacial pace at which the big UK supermarkets have moved on this issue, with only M&S and Waitrose on board so far.

Packham blames an obsession with “artificially low prices” for delays. “We need to work as rapidly as possible through a transition where people realise meat cannot be that cheap because, environmentally, it’s costing too much. We can’t hide from the fact we’re going to have to change our practices and eat less meat.”

A vegetarian for almost 40 years and a vegan since 2019, he doesn’t expect the whole population to adopt a completely plant-based diet, but believes a focus on higher-welfare meat should be a priority.

Chris Packham FuneralForNature-CREDIT JamieBellinger

Source: Jamie Bellinger

Chris Packham, speaking at the Funeral for Nature march in April

“And that opens another debate. If you’re on a lower income, should that remove you from the ability to make ethical decisions about what you eat? No, it shouldn’t. My argument to supermarkets is: discount the better-welfare chicken.”

Packham is also against a meat tax (calling it “too draconian” and unkind to farmers) and is intrigued by the prospect of lab-grown meat (“potentially part of the solution”). And while he finds the concept of the current crop of fake meat brands “a bit weird”, he is partial to what he calls “dirty vegan”: eating a Beyond Meat burger about once a month. “It’s a transitional, short-term option. There will be generations of young people that have never eaten a real burger, so they won’t need a burger replacement. What they need is nutritious, tasty food.”

Struggling farmers

Despite his opposition to industrial farming, Packham recognises farmers need significant support and investment from government to cope with the changes being asked of them on all fronts. But he thinks the NFU is lobbying in the wrong way.

“What an opportunity it would be if the NFU were to rethink and reform and start to approach farming in a more environmentally friendly way,” he says. “And what an asset that would be to all those farmers, because they’re facing climate breakdown and biodiversity loss and poor soil health at the frontline. The NFU is not doing the farming fraternity a great service.”

He points out the irony of the union calling for the government to support farmers struggling with one of the wettest winters on record but failing to recognise that farming is in part responsible for a more unstable climate. “It’s despicable and disingenuous,” he fumes. “And on top of that we’ve had some really very poor ministers of environment. Notably, Liz Truss. Oh my God,” he says, head in hands again.

“The first thing we could do to help farmers is phase out cheap, imported, poor-quality products such as Danish bacon, New Zealand lamb and Australian beef that are sold to undercut our own farmers. It’s bonkers.

“Why haven’t the NFU been at the vanguard of dealing with that? We’ve done deals with the Australians [he calls the trade agreement struck by Truss “disgusting”] and welfare standards are appalling there. We don’t want that stuff on our shelves. We want people paying proper money to UK farmers that are producing food at higher standards of welfare.”

Chris Packham 20-4-2024 FfN Bath MarkR AuroraFindhorn 22818XR

The Funeral for Nature took place in Bath

After years of missed opportunities and broken promises under a Tory government, he is hopeful a potential swing to Labour will benefit nature, in part thanks to promises made by shadow environment secretary Steve Reed.

“There should be opportunities with a new government, but the wholesale changes we need when it comes to not just agriculture but fossil fuels and everything else, I still think we have a fight on our hands. It’s not going to be easy.”

There’s certainly plenty of doom and gloom to go around these days, but Packham remains optimistic it’s not too late to turn things around.

“We have the means to make a difference. We’re just not rolling it out broadly and rapidly enough. We don’t have leaders. These measures require really tough decision-making. They’re going to be unpopular. They’re going to come at high economic cost. And, critically, it means people are going to have to change their minds and their practices.

“We know what’s going to happen. Things will start to break like they did with Covid. Very tragically it killed millions. Within eight months we had a vaccine. Unfortunately, with the climate crisis, we’re going to have to wait until significant things break to wake up the politicians and enough of the public to support those politicians to fix it.

“And the question is, will it be too late at that point? What’s going to be left to mend?”