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  • Writer's pictureWatlington Climate Action Group

Up The Ask

Chris Packham talks to Philip Lymbery at the Peter Roberts Compassion in Farming Lecture

On Sunday 7th November I had the pleasure of listening to Chris Packham speak at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford as part of the Oxford Literary Festival.

The theatre was nigh on packed and as soon as Chris entered the space the theatre erupted into clapping. There was a tangible respect for Chris and the atmosphere was hopeful. This event had been scheduled for 2020, but with the pandemic, thankfully, it was rescheduled rather than cancelled. Chris Packham was a great choice as a speaker for the Peter Roberts Compassion in World Farming Lecture; Chris holds many of the views about the growing disconnects between modern agriculture and the well-being of animals and the environment, as Peter did back in the 1960’s ( Compassion in World Farming ).

Chris was speaking with Philip Lymbery (details about Philip) , the Global CEO of farm animal welfare charity, Compassion in World Farming International. Philip is also Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester’s Centre for Animal Welfare, President of Eurogroup for Animals, Brussels, and founding Board member of the World Federation for Animals, and author of DEADZONE and FARMAGEDDON. Philip gave a great introduction and set the scene without boring facts and dry rhetoric. By the time Chris was up to speak the audience was ready to hear the message of hope. And there was hope, in buckets.

Chris led us gently to the place we are now, that of a climate crisis, by reminiscing about his youth exploring nature and in particular his fascination with the peregrine falcon. We were taken down memory lane, we were reminded how things used to be in our countryside, much as Chris describes in his moving film ‘The walk that made me’.

‘Every minute was magical, every single thing it did was fascinating and everything it didn't do was equally wondrous, and to be sat there, with a Kestrel, a real live Kestrel, my own real live Kestrel on my wrist! I felt like I'd climbed through a hole in heaven's fence.’

We were then brought up to date with the sad facts about UK deforestation and changes in farming practices that has seen our hedges torn out and our land sprayed with glyphosate-based herbicides. Chris recently took part in European research looking at levels of this carcinogen, glyphosate, in humans and was not surprised to find he had worryingly detectable levels in his urine. The arguments that sceptics put up against changing the way we farm was blown out of the water. There is a vast amount of data showing that we produce enough food to feed most of the planet but that 1/3 of this goes to waste every year. We know that innovative solutions to feeding the world and limiting hunger exist; Chris commented that some of these solutions are here today, some are on the way and others yet to be dreamt of. We have high hopes for IT solutions, but we cannot rely on robots, Apps and satellites. We need people to change behaviour and that change is needed now. It is probably easier to get a robot to do something than asking most humans!

The environmental challenges posed by agriculture are huge, and Chris pointed out that we cannot deny that they’ll only become more pressing as we try to meet the growing need for food globally. It is estimated we will have two billion more mouths to feed by mid-century, that is more than nine billion people. But population growth isn’t the only reason we’ll need more food. The spread of prosperity across the world, especially in China and India, is driving an increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, boosting pressure to grow more corn and soybeans to feed more cattle, pigs, and chickens. If these trends continue, the double whammy of population growth and richer diets will require us to roughly double the amount of crops we grow by 2050.

Frustratingly the debate over how to address the global food challenge has become polarized, pitting conventional agriculture and global commerce against local food systems and organic farms. The arguments have been fierce, and like our politics, we seem to be getting more divided rather than finding common ground.

Chris has been a committed vegan for many years and whilst his case for cutting out meat and dairy products could not be missed or ignored, he was considered in his advice and direction to the audience. He spoke of choices, personal choices, difficult choices. All choices need context, and he encouraged the obviously ‘on-side’ audience to lead the way – and spread the word. Spread the word about the things we can do. And importantly and at all times, to be kind. Be kind and help. Be kind and patient. Be kind and be positive. Be kind and have hope. Be kind and take action. During his chatting with us he used the phrase ‘Up the ask’ – I liked that attitude. It reminds me of a phrase I use to say to my kids, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ – we need to ask more of our ourselves and our politicians. We need to ask (challenge) for more, sooner, more ambitiously if we are to combat climate change, if we are to make some dent in the rise in CO2 and methane emissions. If I had to summarise in three words what Chris asked of us, I would say be – kind, patient and responsible. The audience, admittedly all converts to the climate crisis cause, applauded Chris. It was well deserved. We were left hopeful and inspired. I personally felt good about myself and the things I was doing to help with the climate crisis, but I also felt challenged to ask more of myself – Up the ask. I ask that of you as you come to the end of this read. Up the ask. As Chris pointed out, we know what we need to do – there is plenty of information out there and there is always something you can do – eat less meat, buy less, makes things last longer, drive less, fly less, repair not replace, and support local food producers/markets when you can.

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