Latest on peat

The BPOA continues to support the work of the NFU as the leading organisation representing commercial growers interests on the issue of peat use in horticulture.

Peat harvest, Somerset levels_275_206Through its involvement in the Defra Sustainable Growing Media Task Force, the NFU is working closely with government and other industry bodies to ensure future policy focusses on the environmentally and socially responsible sourcing of all growing media materials, and results in a fair deal for UK growers as well as effective protection of the natural environment.

The Task Force was set up to explore how to overcome barriers to further reducing peat use in horticulture, to help move the wider horticultural industry towards the the targets published in the Natural Environment White Paper (June 2011) to phase out the use of peat in professional horticulture by 2030, and to phase out its use in the amateur gardening market by 2020.

The Task Force chairman Alan Knight published his views on the work of the Task Force at the beginning of July. His report provides a realistic overview of the peat and growing media issue, and recognises that future progress on this issue will only be made if changes are evidence-based, and deliver environmental benefits hand-in-hand with economic benefits for growers' businesses.

Key issues to be tackled by the final output of the Task Force should include:

  • an evidence-based way of showing the environmental and social footprints of all growing media constituents to ensure that in terms of environmental and social responsibility, were are not replacing peat with alternatives that are similar to or less responsible than peat itself,
  • measures to ensure that any increased costs associated with the move towards more environmentally and socially responsible growing media are shared by the entire supply chain, right down to the end consumer, and
  • that any future policies or initiatives in the UK are applied such that UK growers are not placed in an unfair position compared to their competitors abroad.

The HDC have published an excellent Growing Media Review in 2012, which gathers together, for the first time, information about the current environmental and commercial status of peats, together with summaries of all the trials undertaken over the past 20 years which have looked at the development and use of growing media ingredients for commercial horticulture. The review shows what has been achieved in growing media development in that time and shows what needs to be done to ensure that high quality responsibly sourced and commercially viable materials will continue to be available into the future

This month, Governmentofficially responded to the Task Force chairman's report. Basically, Government is supportive in principle that the agenda needs to be widened out and focus on the sustainability of all growing media materials, and not just peat. However, it looks set tocontinue with ‘peat reduction’ language until at least2015, when they have committed to a peat policy review. In the meantime, Defra will be establishing a new Growing Media Panel tooversee and co-ordinate the delivery of the roadmap developed bythe Task Force. The NFU willbe a member of this panel, and through the NFUthe interests of BPOA members will continue to be represented on this issue.

Going forward, the BPOA hopes Defra's future policy will be evidence-based, and not least draw upon the peat research Defra itself published in 2010.

Predictably this research delivered a range of complex answers requiring careful interpretation, but it was also clear that it provides some very meaningful results for the horticultural industry.

Defra published three research reports on the horticultural use of peat in 2010, looking at the latest data on peat sales, the greenhouse gases associated with peat and peat-free alternatives, and the costs to the industry of making peat reductions.

The current Defra team dealing with peat actually deserves some credit for commissioning this and other recently published research in the first place. Since Government targets to reduce horticultural use of peat were published over a decade ago, the BPOA and NFU have been calling for policies to actually be based on sound science and this was eventually recognised by Defra with the flurry of peat research projects commissioned in the last couple of years. The next challenge will be to ensure the results of this research actually underpin any future policies on peat reduction.

The first report published In August was from Defra s ongoing monitoring work, and simply gives the 2009 data on peat sales. The results show that the UK horticultural market is now 58% peat free, and that the volume of peat used has decreased (compared to 2007) to just under 3 million cubic metres a year (download a copy of the report here).

The second report published dealt with the greenhouse gases associated with peat and peat alternatives (e.g. coir, wood fibre, bark, green compost) This project sought to measure and compare the greenhouse gas emissions (basically the carbon footprint) associated with different growing media materials. It found that, depending how you measure, peat alternatives can have higher carbon footprints than peat itself, or can have lower footprints than peat. The report consequently concluded the evidence-base is not robust enough to justify using CO2 emissions as a reason to drive reduced peat use. Which is surprising considering Defra had these results in-hand when their Minister launched an Act on CO2 campaign in March this year that aimed to wean gardeners off peat by 2020 on the basis that they can lower their CO2 emissions immediately by using peat-free compost.

The third report published by Defra investigated the costs to the industry of making peat reductions, and considering the current economic climate its results are arguably more important than those of the greenhouse gas project. The report discovers that despite the 100 million investment by industry to date in peat replacement, we have, for most growing purposes, still not been able to develop a peat-free growing media that is both better and cheaper than peat. The report also explains how a future faster rate of peat replacement will increase the costs of making the change significantly - achieving a '90% peat-free by 2020' target for example would cost UK growers in the order of 69 million per year. Notably the report also highlights that the market power of the retailers has allowed them to replace peat, at considerable cost to their suppliers, without passing the cost on to consumers. To progress peat reduction, future costs cannot be borne by the industry alone. 

The BPOA and NFU have long been of the view that alternatives to peat must add value, not cost, to UK growers. It is clear from these Defra reports that for peat reduction to progress further, stakeholders other than growers or growing media manufacturers will have to take a more proactive and realistic role in supporting the costs involved. If Government continues with policies that drive a reduction in the horticultural use of peat, then it should be looking to fiscal mechanisms at its disposal, e.g. lower taxation, to incentivise the use of sustainable peat alternatives. The BPOA and NFU also believe retailers have a significant role to play in helping growers recover the additional costs of peat replacement from the consumer.

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