Monday, 15 October 2012

Should the UK be peat free?

The use of peat by the horticultural industry has long been a controversial issue in the UK, and now the argument is becoming more heated than a well-maintained compost heap.

The British Government have announced plans to ban peat from all amateur gardening products by 2020 and a similar phase out for the professional horticulture sector by 2030.

Recently the popular celebrity organic gardener Bob Flowerdew hit the headlines after saying he would continue to use peat, even if it meant buying it on the blackmarket.

I'm often asked my thoughts about going peat free and I have to confess I can see both sides of the argument - though I can only talk from my own experience with the horticultural industry and commercial peat producers.

When you're standing on a harvested peat field and all you can see are acres and acres of black, bare peat the knee-jerk reaction is to say such an activity is wrong and must be stopped.
Peat extraction in Canada. Photograph: Christian Dunn

However, as a pragmatic environmentalist you have to try and stand back and look at the whole picture.

Peat is a very important growing media, which for various biological, chemical, physical and economical factors is used extensively in all types of horticulture from the back yard gardener to huge industrial growing facilities.

In fact, most of the lettuce you eat in your sandwiches will have been grown in peat-based compost.

There are, of course, alternatives to peat and there is always research being done to improve these. But from what I've seen there still appears to be nothing out there to fully rival peat.

Some alternatives don't give good enough growing results while others are too expensive, either economically or in terms of the energy used and the carbon footprint created to manufacture them.

Now, perhaps these issues shouldn't be overly important to an amateur gardener, who should be prepared to pay more for his peat free compost and accept lower germination rates.

But for the growing industry in places like the Netherlands, trying to keep up with ever increasing food demands, it could be very harmful: closing down businesses leading to job losses and damaging fragile economies.

I don't think anyone can simply say all peat-based composts are a bad thing. Should alternatives be used wherever possible? Of course. Should amateur gardeners use peat-based composts? Probably not (I try not to!).

I do think we should definitely try to reduce our dependency on peat and any company wanting to extract peat, in whatever country, should have to come up with an in-depth peatland restoration programme and be held accountable to it.

Interestingly it is often the manufactures of peat composts that are investing the most in researching alternatives to peat and, the ones I have spoken to, take restoration and re-vegetation of their extracted fields very seriously.

If we were to stop all peat extraction, who would pay for this in the future as there are many historically extracted sites that still need direct management if they are to ever become peat-producing sites again?

So perhaps an outright ban of peat is not the best way to go - instead we need to balance our use of peat with the rate of extraction and restoration of harvested sites.

Here is the final report from Defra regarding the UK becoming peat free:

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