Interview with Veganuary Ambassador, Chris Packham

How did you find yourself on this vegan trajectory?

I’ve been interested in what I eat, the impact of my diet on the environment for a long time, I was tempted into giving up meat by Michaela Strachan many, many years ago. I’d virtually given up. Occasionally I’d eat some chicken and I was already thinking to myself Why are you doing that? And as soon as I met her she said You must stop and I did instantaneously. That must be about 35-40 years ago, I suppose, so it’s a long time. But as I’ve become more and more aware of our impact, the impact our diet has on the environment – and of course the species that live in it – I’ve become increasingly concerned to minimise the negative aspects of that impact.

So, intensive agriculture, intensive farming, farming practices, animal husbandry, impact in climate change, impact on my body, the impact it has on me personally, all come into play. And believe it or not, for someone who is quite slothful when it comes to eating … I mean a lot of the time for me, food is fuel, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not someone who treats food as a luxury, you know, spending lots of money on luxury food is a decadent thing that I can’t embrace, morally and ethically. So, a lot of time it’s fuel, and therefore it’s about grabbing fuel and having choice when you’re grabbing fuel is sometime quite tough. But I’ve been getting better at it, and I found the way to deal with it is to simply purge things out of my diet. So, I decided quite a few years ago that I would not eat crisps or drink soft drinks, so this mouth has consumed no crisps for at least ten years, no soft drinks for at least ten years, not a single sip, nothing, not a slurp, not a cold fizzy tempting ice-filled glass of anything fizzy for at least ten years. So, I can be quite strong like that, and I’ve systematically worked my way through my diet and I’ve felt now that I’ve got to the point where I should push slightly more forward and slightly harder.

I gave up cheese in the early part of last year because I couldn’t find any vegan cheese that was any good, I’ll be very honest with you, so I just sort of thought in the end, you know, look, remove all temptation, just stop eating cheese per se. So, May it was, and I haven’t had any, knowingly, any cheese since May.

So, you’ve been reducing animal products from your diet over a very long period, so is it possible to say whether you have felt any benefits physically?

Any benefits physically? I mean when I gave up eating bread, that was the key thing. I can’t remember what happened, it was so long ago, when I gave up eating meat. Of all of the things that I’ve purged in and out of my diet and tested i.e. started to re-eat them, to see if there was a genuine difference, the one thing was bread. I don’t eat bread. Bread is bad for me. And then I thought, well I can probably eat bread on the continent, classy French bread. No.

Soo all that fat, all that sugar I’m better off without it. I sleep better, I generally feel better throughout the course of the day, and I have tested it. I’ve eaten bread to see if it produces a negative response and it does. So, I think that those sorts of things … I’m conscious about not consuming too much sugar so I do diet quite rigorously and then I’m solely on salad, basically. So, for instance, two months of this year – August and September – I ate nothing but salad. Nothing. At all. So that was, you know, interesting. Made some nice salads! Found some neat things to put into salads and my partner Charlotte made some absolutely fantastic salads. She rose to my challenge!

So, yeah, cutting out the sugar and all of that, I definitely feel better. No doubt about it. The only thing that on a day-to-day, tested regime was bread. I’m better off without it.

Some people talk not just about physical health benefits but that they feel better psychologically, or even spiritually …

I like being in control to be honest with you. I mean that’s part and parcel of the Asperger’s thing. The more control I can take over my life the less stress that I’m likely to entertain so controlling my environment is really, really important and having some part of that environment which I have total control over gives me a refuge.

Now, that’s to some extent a physical space, there is also control over time and emotion and all of those things and again I’m very conscious of my need to control those and of course what I eat is part of it. I like the fact that I choose what I eat, when, how much of, therefore everything about it, so I am a dietary control freak, which is why I can say I’m not going to eat something and then I don’t eat it.

And people will say Are you tempted? And the answer is Of course not. It doesn’t exist for me anymore. It’s not on my agenda.

If I say I’m not drinking any alcohol, I don’t fancy a drink because alcohol ceases to exist as part of my life. So, I think from that point of view, deciding what I eat, what forms part of my diet, is perhaps maybe a little easier than it might be for some people because I don’t endure those sorts of temptations.

“If I am going to somewhere where I feel there won’t be options available to me, I can be prepared.”

And how is it for you when you travel?

The difficulty might be for me when I travel because I get less choice about what is available to eat but, do you know, we don’t starve to death very quickly. I do have fast days. I haven’t been doing it for the last couple of months but typically I would have at least one day a week where I didn’t eat anything, or I might just have a biscuit or something just to say that I’ve eaten. So, I’ve introduced those fasting days. I did that about, more than five years ago, so if I’m away and there isn’t anything to eat, I just won’t eat for a day, maybe two. That’s not going to kill me.

Obviously, the other thing is about preparation. If I am going to somewhere where I feel there won’t be options available to me, I can be prepared. I take toothpaste all over the world with me, so I can clean me teeth every morning. If I’m going somewhere where I don’t think I can sustain a vegan diet I can take some vegan stuff with me, alongside my toothpaste. So, it’s that planning and preparation which I think might become part of the portfolio of completing the dietary change.

Why are you happy to be an Ambassador for Veganuary?

I’m very fortunate in that I have some capacity to communicate with people through the minor public profile that I have, and I feel I have to put that to good use. For me, it’s not just about enjoying my work, which I do, and being paid for the work that I do, it’s about the vocational opportunities that it offers me. I couldn’t sleep at night, not a wink, if I didn’t get up during the day and try and move people in a positive direction over issues that concern me and which I have some knowledge of. And when I look at other people who have a far stronger, potentially stronger and more powerful voice than my own and they don’t exercise it, I’m not impressed really.

There are a number of things we need to be talking about in society these days because they are very serious issues and there are people very well placed to make an impact and they’re not doing it so I feel a compunction to stand up and ask people to think about what they do and the choice they make, and to tell them about the true costs of those choices because then if they’re armed with better information they are better placed to make the right decision. And it’s my job to offer them that opportunity.

I’m not a finger-waggy person because I don’t like being told what to do. I like being asked to do something and then I can ask Is it the right thing to do? Tell me if I should or not. So, that’s why I’m really excited to be an Ambassador. I’m interested from a person al point of view because I’m not fully vegan and I’ve always been honest about that. I take a bit of flak for it. But this is me saying I’ve got to a certain point and now I’m going to see if I can go furtherAnd moving towards that point is progress so even if the people who I’m able to communicate with throughout the course of the month don’t end up vegans, if they’re eating meat 7 days a week and they cut to 5, or if they’re eating it for 3 and they cut it to 1, that’s progress. And in their own time they might make a journey like the one that I’ve been making so I’m not someone who pushes people. I’m just someone who says Look, here’s an opportunity, think about this if it suits you, move in that direction.

I think that what we’re seeing is that people are far more sophisticated in terms of what they know about the health benefits to themselves, their impact on the world, the enormous consumption that we continue to encourage and how damaging that is and many people are now looking to do the right thing. They’re concerned about plastics. They’re concerned about animal testing. They’re concerned about animal welfare. And social media gives us an enormous opportunity to build communities who share information about these sorts of things and within those communities we educate one another and that’s what Veganuary is all about. It’s education really.