This year, I’m going peat free, and I’d encourage you to try it too.
Peat is a rich growing medium traditionally prized by gardeners. It’s commonly included in multi purpose composts at bargain prices at the garden centre, and I’ve often seen it labelled as ‘organic.’
But it’s not so super organic as the pretty picture on the package suggests.
According to the International Union for Conservation of nature, peat is
- Critical for preserving global biodiversity, providing safe drinking water, minimising flood risk and helping address climate change.
- Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store; the area covered by near natural peatland worldwide sequesters 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.
- Damaged peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, annually releasing almost 6% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions.
Peatlands are highly significant to global efforts to combat climate change, and protection and restoration of peatlands is vital in the transition towards a low-carbon and circular economy.
Cheap but not cheerful
In the UK, peat is cheap, packaged as ‘organic’ and widely available in garden shops and supermarkets.
Keen gardeners are generally well aware of the issues around using peat in the garden, and Saint Monty Don always mentions using ‘peat free compost’ but the general consumer seems unaware that peat is a big problem, and the horticulture trade isn’t doing much to inform them of this issue.
Market forces were supposed to resolve this issue. Since 2010, government policy has been for a ‘voluntary’ phase-out of peat by the gardening industry.
This has not happened, for fairly obvious reasons, expertly summarised by John Walker in 2017
I should have rumbled this lot of smoke and mirrors long back, but I grasped a thread of hope that the UK’s gardening industry could honour the 2020 goal. Naivety lulled me into believing that the industry body responsible for delivering peat-free gardening – the Growing Media Association (GMA) – could ever be up to the job. But how can it be, when it’s comprised largely of businesses with the most to lose: the Big Peat miners. Just like turkeys avoid ballot boxes at Christmas, the GMA seems determined to flunk hitting the 2020 deadline. More smoke clears on finding that the chair of the GMA runs Bord na Mona’s UK operations; Bord na Mona is a big miner of Irish peat.
So peat extraction continues, despite the climate emergency. The Consumer organisation Which still recommended composts containing peat. The horticultural business ‘Suttons’ (which declares itself 95% peat free) estimates that between 25% and 70% of the plants sold at UK garden centres are grown in peat.
A little local history of Somerset peat
Here in Somerset, we have marshy wetlands, which have traditionally been harvested for their peat.
Peat was used as a fuel, a building material, and later as a growing medium.
At its peak in the 1990s, about 250,000 tonnes of peat was extracted annually from Somerset. Growing pressure about the environmental impact of extraction on this scale in this area led to big businesses pulling out of this activity and handing over the land to conservation and wildlife charities.
Although many large businesses have divested from peat extraction in Somerset, as whole the peat business is still growing.
The peat industry worldwide is forecast to grow by more than 2% over the next five years. Market forecasts don’t suggest that the environmental impact of ongoing extraction is acting as a brake on growth. https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/peat-market-2019-to-2024-with-top-countries-data-market-size-consumption-and-growth-rate-by-application-types-key-players-and-competitive-regions-2019-12-03
Delay and Denial
Back in the 1990s pressure was growing to stop peat extraction, and yet thirty years later much of the gardening industry is still peat based, despite the experts in the trade being well aware of the problem. Rather like the tobacco companies and oil firms, they’ve put their energies into denying the problem and extracting the profit, rather than transitioning to better alternatives.
As long as peat is still cheap and widely available, the casual gardener will buy peat and buy plants grown in peat. As long as the ‘externalities’ of the environmental impact of peat extraction are not costed into the bottom line, businesses will continue to extract peat for profit.
I hope that the government will act soon on this issue, but I fear that won’t happen. Perhaps Lord Zac Goldsmith will instigate real change, but I am deeply suspicious of the conservation credentials of this conservative government. I hope I’m proved wrong.
A petition calling for Parliament to legislate for an immediate ban on peat extraction was shut down just before the election. It’s so far unclear when the petitions system will be live again under the new government.
Perhaps as soon as Bojo files back from the Caribbean and gets Brexit done he’ll put environmental protection at the top of the To-Do list.
Meanwhile, you can find peat free suppliers and more information at https://turndownthepeat.blogspot.com/p/help-build-peat-free-map.html