Melchett quits Greenpeace to spend more time with his crops

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Lord Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace UK for the past 12 years, is to leave it to concentrate on running his organic farm.

Lord Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace UK for the past 12 years, is to leave it to concentrate on running his organic farm.

The 52-year-old peer is leaving at the point when his recent court acquittal after leading a raid to destroy genetically modified (GM) crops had given him the highest profile of any British environmental campaigner since Sir Jonathon Porritt quit as director of Friends of the Earth 10 years ago.

His retirement will leave a gap in green politics that will not easily be filled. Greenpeace staff were shocked when told the news yesterday at their headquarters in London.

But their leader, a former Labour minister, thinks he has spent long enough in the job and wants to return to his first love, the 800-acre Norfolk farm he inherited from his father in 1973, which he has opened to the public and which he began converting this month to fully organic production.

He will also be working part-time as a consultant to Iceland, the supermarket chain which has led the way in offering GM-free produce in its stores. Yesterday, Lord Melchett said: "If I was going to leave eventually... now seemed to me a really good time, because things are going so well for Greenpeace... Our finances and income are going well, our supporter numbers are rising, and I think our reputation and our campaigning are going well too. We have definitely made an impact on the GM issue.

"I'm sad to be leaving tremendous people, but in some ways it's good for Greenpeace. Greenpeace was going long before I had anything to do with it, and will be going long after I leave."

The peer, who prefers to be known as Peter Melchett, has travelled a long way from his background as the great-grandson of Sir Alfred Mond, the man who founded ICI. After Eton and Cambridge he became a vegetarian socialist and later a junior minister for Northern Ireland in the Callaghan government from 1976 to 1979.

He has presided over the UK branch of Greenpeace during a decade in which the group has won some famous victories, notably over Shell and its plans to dump at sea the oil storage buoy Brent Spar in 1995 and, more recently, over the Government and its prosecution of Lord Melchett and 27 other activists who wrecked a field of GM crops in Norfolk. Last month a jury found that they had not acted illegally.

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