Vegetable propagator warns David Cameron over dangers of Defra peat phase-out proposal

One of the country's largest plant propagators has written to prime minister David Cameron objecting to Defra's plan to phase out horticultural use of peat in England.

Lincolnshire-based Westhorpe Flowers & Plants director Roger White was still waiting to hear back from Number 10 Downing Street as Grower went to press, having sent his letter to the prime minister at the start of the month.

In his letter, White - whose business produces more than 100 million vegetable transplants a year - warned of the damaging effect the withdrawal of the horticultural use of peat in England would have on his business.

He said: "Defra's suggestion to phase out peat by 2030 would cost us £80,000 a year. We will take the UK Government to the EU court if it attempts to ban peat use."

White wrote the letter not only on his own behalf but on behalf of some of his fellow propagators. This was because peat is the growing media to which vulnerable seedlings respond the best, he said.

He said Defra did not speak to the industry while compiling its document for consultation on its peat-use proposals, instead relying on non-governmental organisations for evidence and background data.

His letter also highlighted how the Government's approach to other horticulture issues, such as the slow time it takes to approve pesticides compared with other parts of Europe, combined with its peat proposals will "destroy" the industry. The letter stated: "Do you really want to destroy UK agriculture and horticulture? Because current Defra and EU policies will."

White told Grower that he and his colleagues had trialled other growing media such as coir but with little success. He explained: "Seedlings do not grow well if you grow them in coir. I have trialled coir with clay but all of the fertiliser goes straight through.

"You lose quality and you cannot hold the plants quite as well for those grower customers who have delayed planting dates because you have to keep them wetter."

White also told Grower that the Government had overlooked other important factors - such as the carbon footprint, safety, availability and cost of peat alternatives.

"We cannot get insurance for green waste because there is a risk of legionnaires' disease," he said. "Name a supermarket that would indemnify if one of my staff died or if I killed a customer. The Government is living in a dream world."

"I do not think the Government has done an accurate carbon footprint analysis of peat alternatives. Green waste also produces methane, which is more potent than CO2. When our glasshouse heaters are going, the vents are not open and the CO2 is used by the crop anyway. I despair. Plus we have to have coir tested for disease."

White also noted that peat alternatives were far more expensive. "Coir would cost us £5 for every 10 per cent of peat we replace. A total replace would cost £50 per cubic metre at £175 a bale, which is 3.75 cubic metres.

"Green waste is £40 per cubic metre and a farmer cannot afford to haul it for more than 15 miles from a site. Pine bark is £60 per cubic metre - the cost of anything that is used for biofuel is through the roof.

Cornwall-based Fentongollan Farm plant propagator Jeremy Hosking told Grower: "We actually use 100 per cent peat. We have done various trials using other media, but when we used coir it did not work very well. We had issues with poor rooting of plants.

"We also did a trial on pine bark. A 20 per cent mix worked well. A 40 per cent mix worked very well in the main growing season, but not when we were doing it over the winter. Root structure is vitally important.

"For propagators, there is nothing better than peat and until they find something, it's pretty premature to start phasing it out. For the domestic market, I do not see an issue with phasing out peat, but for propagators using small modules it is going to be very difficult to change until there's something better."

A meeting was held last week by Defra on its peat consultation (see p6). There, its soil policy team said it realised that there were gaps in its evidence base and added that it was looking for more data.

- To read the consultation online, see www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/peat/index.htm

NFU NEWSLETTER HIGHLIGHTS RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH GOVERNMENT PLANS

In its latest fortnightly newsletter to members, the NFU said: "With the vegetable propagation sector alone, which has no practical alternative to peat, Defra's phase-out proposals would not only threaten the future of propagation businesses in the UK but would also threaten to seriously compromise a vegetable sector (all the leafy, headed and flowering brassica crops, almost all the leafy salad crops and other crops like celery and some leeks) worth nearly £800m per year that depends on this propagation.

"For what? UK vegetable propagators use around 74,000cu m of peat a year. If we assume all this came from the UK, not using this peat would contribute to reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions by less than 0.005 per cent."


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