Co-op Congress Q&A: Wildlife campaigner Chris Packham

The conservationist and TV presenter will be among the speakers at this year's event, organised by Co-operatives UK

We speak to conservationist and BBC presenter Chris Packham, who takes part in the UK Co-op Congress on Friday (25 June) in a session on how co‑ops are rebuilding through social change campaigning.

You’re speaking at Co-op Congress in June – what are your views on co-ops? And what will your message be to people at the event?

My mother was always a big fan of the Co-op. She knew her divi number off by heart and of course she collected Co-op stamps. So I grew up with the Co-op and still like the ideal behind it. To me it’s a people’s assembly where everyone has a voice and that means there is a multitude of ideas. During lockdown I shopped once a week at our local Co-op in Ashurst and saw first hand that the shop workers there were at the front line of the pandemic. They worked really hard to ensure the shelves remained full and we felt safe shopping, so hats off to them. 

At Congress I’ll be talking about campaigning and why co-ops need to do more of it. To change society we have to change people’s ideals before we can change what they do. So I’m going to be focusing on how to identify and then engage with your audience to shape your campaign. We need to empower people to bring about change. Too many campaigns are disempowering. The world may well be going to hell in a handcart but you won’t engage people by telling them that. Instead, people need to feel empowered and that they can make a difference, even if that difference is just clicking on a petition. Co-ops with their millions of members could help transform society by acting collectively and replacing ‘I’ with ‘we’. To bring about real change we need 25% of the population to think differently and co-ops are key to this transformation. 

Related: Preview of the UK Co-op Congress line up

Bees and beehives have been emblems of co-ops from the beginning, as a symbol of working together for the common good. What are your favourite examples of co-operation within the natural world?

My favourite example in the natural world are honey guides. Found in Africa and Asia, they are remarkable birds which lead other animals – especially people – to honey. They are really honey indicator birds and are renowned for their close relationship with us. By leading people directly to where bee colonies are, they get to feast on the larvae and beeswax we leave behind. That’s very clever behaviour and a great example of co-operation. I also love clown fish and sea anemones because of their symbiotic relationship, the fish gaining protection from the anemone’s stinging cells. In return the fish cleans the anemone, provides it with nutrients and scares away predatory fish like the butterflyfish.

Co-ops are committed to the UN’s sustainable development goals. What does sustainable development look like to you?

Sustainable development has to be based on targets which are immediate and mean something to people. Committing to doing something in 2050 on climate change or biodiversity loss simply won’t engage people, especially when the science shows we need to take action now and that by 2030 it will be too late. Sustainable development needs a sense of urgency, not the type of politicking we saw at the G7 recently. COP26 will be critical to Britain’s leadership on the world stage and that means taking action action now, not pontificating and putting it off. 

One of the co-op principles is ‘concern for community’. What are some of the biggest challenges facing UK communities right now? What can co-ops do about them?

The biggest challenge facing all communities right now is climate change. Flooding will become an even bigger problem in the years to come but so will droughts – and, as a result prices, will rise. Migration will also continue to change our communities. As the world becomes ever more destabilised, more people will seek security here. We have to embrace this as part of out future. We are one species and we have one planet and one chance to sort it out. To do that we need to put aside our differences and act collectively. That is the principle thatco-ops were founded on and in the future I’d like to see all co-ops opening up their doors to global members. 

What are some of the biggest challenges facing UK wildlife conservation right now? What can co-ops do about them?

The biggest challenges facing UK wildlife right now are industrial farming and how we treat the environment. We are still losing too many habitats to huge vanity projects like HS2 – but if we do them right, big infastructure projects don’t need to be so environmentally destructive. As a society we don’t value conservation nearly enough. During the recent warm weather I had my windows at home open all the time and the lack of insects coming into the house was really noticeable. Insects are a vital part of the food chain and most of us remember that when our parents went for a drive their car came back splattered in insects. Today that’s just a memory because of the enormous amounts of pesticides we put on the land. As a society we need to do much more to support farmers moving away from intensive agriculture to more sustainable forms of production. That means sourcing a lot more of our food locally which I know co-ops already champion. When we source our food we need to not only take account of issues like price, animal welfare and fair trade but also the amount of carbon it takes to produce it. Why are we selling New Zealand lamb in our shops when we could easily source that from this country? Importing food from Australia or New Zealand we could grow ourselves is madness.  

You have been campaigning on the Better Chicken Commitment. What is your message to co-ops about this?

I’d like to ask all co-ops to think more about where their chickens come from and how they can help drive up welfare standards. I understand that higher standards mean that prices will have to rise a little. I’ve spoken to a lot of supermarkets about chickens and they’ve told me that if we increase welfare standards, we increase prices and that means that poorer people can’t afford them. I would say give people that choice so they can make ethical decisions for themselves. It may mean that people can’t afford to eat chicken as often but they will at least have equality of choice and can look for alternatives. So what I say to all co-ops is let’s have that conversation. 

You have spoken about the environmental damage caused by managing moorland for driven grouse shooting. There have been examples of communities forming co-ops to buy moorland from estates to rewild or create new nature reserves, such the Langholm initiative in Scotland. How else could co-ops help with rewilding / nature conservation?

I’d love to see more co-ops and communities buying nature reserves or farms and getting involved in ecotourism. The recent series of Springwatch came from Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk.  It used to be a 4,000 acre estate that was intensively managed but in 2019 they started on a major rewilding project which they combined with regenerative farming. Today it’s a real haven for wildlife and a profitable farm. I’d also really like to see co-ops and communities investing in land banks which could be used to offset our carbon footprint. Co-ops have led the way on so many ethical issues from biodegradable plastic bags to fair trade. It would be really inspiring to see them investing in nature reserves, farms and land banks and then running eco tours to them. 

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