Monday, 30 May 2011

Peat-Free Compost

Should we be using Peat - an non-renewable resource - in our garden grow-bags and compost?

It is perhaps helpful to start at the beginning by expalining that peat is an organic material, formed as an accumulation of partially decayed vegetable matter, that forms in wetlands such as bogs, mires and swamps.

It has traditionally been used as a source of fuel (once dried) in many parts of the world but it's use in gardening dates from only the 1970s, when supplies of loam were suffering shortages and peat began to be used as an alternative.

Currently, the UK uses 3 million cubic metres of peat for horticulture every year (this is apparantly enough to fill 19,000 double decker buses, although BFTF prefers to convert this to a more conventional 1,200 olympic sized swimming pools).

According to DEFRA's 2010 "Consultation on reducing the horticultural use of peat in England" document,"extraction activities result in annual greenhouse gas emissions of at least 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from UK extraction sites. This is equivalent to 100,000 cars on the road each year and does not take account of the peat that we import from overseas, principally from Ireland (which supplies 60% of our horticultural peat) and the Baltic States (8%)"

In addition the consulation also states that peat stocks contain over half of the UK's soil carbon (around 5.5 billion tonnes) by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as partially decomposed plants and mosses over many thousands of years. At the same time, their
cold and waterlogged conditions preserve valuable archaeological artefacts, with an
estimated 4200 archaeological sites in English lowland peatlands . . . and 1800 sites in upland peat habitats (for example, the Peak District). In lowland areas, like the Fens, peat soils are economically important for high-value arable and horticultural crop production, and in upland areas for livestock grazing and grouse shooting."

The Government has already made efforts to reduce the amount of peat used in soil improvers, and, since 1999, this has resulted in the amount of peat used reducing significantly, even as the total amount of the amount of soil improvers has increased by over 50%.

Some 30% of soil improvers sold to the "amateur garden market" are peat free and, overall, peat now comprises less than 10% of the volume of peat used annually.

The DEFRA consulation asks for views regarding a number of questions and options relating to a proposed elimination of peat from all soil improvers by 2030 at the latest.

A recent (26th May) Radio4 debate on the "You and yours" programme on Radio 4 this week hosted by the excellent Winifred Robinson (who is admirably Rottweiler-like in keeping the guests on-topic and focussed) looked at this topic with input from Mark Diacono, Head of Gardens at River Cottage and a supporter of "peat-free" gardening - and Tim Briercliffe, of the Horticultural Trade Association.

Mark Diacono presented pretty much the same arguements as those of the DEFRA paper, all of which seemed to make a lot of sense to BFTF. . . ,

Tim Briercliffe commented that the industry has spent over 100million pounds investing in alternative composts over the last 10 years but there has been little demand from the market (so far as BFTF can see, this does not seem to be supported by the data in the DEFRA report)

Tim also commented that, regarding peat-free soil improvers it was critical that the price "is the same because we have to produce sometihng. . . in a marketplace that is not particularly calling out for a change" (dear reader, BFTF would like to draw your attention to a RSPB survey of gardening experts which showed two thirds backing a phase out of peat by 2020, and also to the fact that B&Q, Aylett Nurseries, and Sainsburys are already committed towards a phase out of peat in their soil improvers).

At the risk of establishing a pattern, another of Tim's comments was that a proposed £1 per bag levy on soil improvers containing peat will just result in increased levels of peat coming in from overseas (is BFTF the only one thinking that the source of the peat is irrelevant if the levy is put on the bag at point of sale?)

Some of the emails from listeners were fascinating. In particular was a call from Landscape Gardener (and competition judge) Penny Bennett who mentioned that she had not used peat based products for decades and that if she was judging a competition, entries that did use peat were marked down significantly.

Another call that was interesting was from a listener who had stopped using peat-free soil improvers when she found out that Ireland had a number of peat powered power stations. "What's the point" was here perfectly reasonble conclusion. BFTF has to admit that this was very disconcerting to hear and has investigated further. . .

Bord Na Mona is the company that harvests peat for use in Eire's peat power stations. As of a 2001 report, some 4 million tons (not litres -as soil improver is measured) were being used per annum. According to Wikipedia, the level of peat depletion is such that most of the peat-fired power stations will be closed within 25 years. The amount of peat used as a percentage of total energy generation has been going down for several decades, and the government has set up schemes for the peat-fired power stations to use at least 30% biomass by 2015.

Ok, so that - at least in outline - is the issue. The next question is what should be do about it - to find out an (not "the") answer, get clicky here:

UPDATE : 27 June 2011
Having sent out some emails, NSB received the following responses : DEFRA : Responded saying that the results of the consultation were on the website. (They can be found here). The results have been incorporated into a White Paper "The Natural Choice" (can be found here). The key aims are :
Phase out for government and public sector by 2015 (currently 1% of peat market)
Voluntary phase out target of 2020 for amateur gardeners (currently 69% of peat market)
Voluntary phase out target of 2030 for commercial growers (currently 30% of peat market)
Task Force to be set up to advise on how best to overcome barriers to reducing peat use.
The long timescales for amateur gardeners and commercial growers are disappointing, particularly given that peat has only been used as a soil improver since the 1970's and that no levy is being put on peat to recognise its value in flood prevention, as a carbon store etc.

Local Council : They sent a very informative reply stating that they were trialling partly and fully peat free composts and aimed to meet the governments target of eliminating its use by 2015.
Further Information:
DEFRA Consulation report

World Peat Energy Notes

RSPB proposal for a levy on Soil improvers

RSPB Survey of Gardening Experts

Bord Na Moma 2001 introduction

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