Alan Knight builds cost into peat-use reductions

Economic consideration gets equal billing with environment in task force conclusions on sustainable growing media.

Alan Knight's Towards Sustainable Growing Media report was published last week - image: HW
Alan Knight's Towards Sustainable Growing Media report was published last week - image: HW

Economic considerations are as important as environmental and social pillars in managing peat reduction, Sustainable Growing Media Task Force chairman Dr Alan Knight has concluded.

Knight, whose report and road map Towards Sustainable Growing Media was published last week, said the Government should support UK horticulture more, while environmentalists should not target the industry.

But concerns remain over European imports, despite Knight acknowledging the economic issues of growers that were absent from the Natural Choice white paper that prompted the task force's formation in 2011.

Knight suggested that voluntary end-use dates of 2015 for councils, 2020 for retail and 2030 for professionals could be moved. The Government is due to respond to the proposals by the end of this year.

However, the horticulture industry is over-reliant on peat and must find alternatives for economic reasons, said Knight. Growing media needs to be "competitive, perform to agreed standards and have proven sustainability credentials", he added.

"The transition to sustainable growing media needs to be economically viable," said Knight, and costs of change will need to be shared across the entire supply chain.

The report mentions biochar and hydroponics as alternatives to explore and Knight lauded his former employer B&Q's "net positive" sustainability stance.

He suggested that changes sustainability requires are "delivered outside the existing portfolio of businesses in the sector" with "incentives, grants, prizes or tax holidays" needed to prompt industry to find alternatives.

HTA policy manager Gary Scroby said: "The Growing Media Association (GMA) is leading efforts to create a performance standard for amateur bagged growing media and will develop criteria to measure the environmentally and socially responsible credentials of all growing media materials."

Growing Media Initiative chairman Tim Briercliffe said: "Our steering group will consider the recommendations and propose a mechanism for integrating these in the scheme."

GMA chairman James Hayes said a planned performance standard to raise the bar on the quality of products being offered to the market is key to progress.

NFU horticulture adviser Dr Chris Hartfield said he welcomed Knight's inference that changes in growingmedia use will need to be economically sustainable for growers' businesses. He said the whole supply chain and Government should pay for research and development.

But International Peat Society scientific advisory board chairman Jack Rieley described the report as a "major disappointment".

"The carbon attributable to English peat extraction of less than 200,000 tonnes a year is piddling compared to total England emissions from all sources". He added: "The rhetoric to phase out the use of peat in English horticulture should not be based on ideology but on rational action that combines the benefits of peat with the need to restore degraded bogs."

Industry figure Graham Ward said the task force had widened its brief beyond the white paper, which was only about peat harvested in England. "This will create a totally different commercial situation for English growers and gardeners than for our EU competitors. We will be severely financially disadvantaged as well as producing inferior plants and gardens."

Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg said Knight had managed to distil a balanced view and the critical issue is what happens next. "We should be working with European partners to take a more unified view," he added.

British Retail Consortium sustainability policy adviser Catherine Prezderka said: "The focus was not on zero peat but on sustainable growing media." But retailers should not have to take responsibility for "choice editing" peat out of their offers and the Government should take a lead, she added.

Defra minister Richard Benyon said: "The horticultural industry has made real progress in reducing peat use but, as the report shows, there is work to be done to ensure that the sector can make an important contribution to sustainability."

- Launching the report of an inquiry into the natural environment white paper on 17 July, Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee chair Anne McIntosh said: "Peat extraction destroys irreplaceable habitats and causes greenhouse gas emissions. The white paper's target to end all peat use by 2030 shows a lamentable lack of ambition. A review of progress must be brought forward to 2014."

See commons-select/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/ news/newp-report-publication.

- Send feedback to growing by 30 September. A final task force meeting is planned for 11 September.

Alan Knight's recommendations - Road map for peat-use reduction

- Make growing media fit for purpose - 10-year plan initially using Growing Media Initiative (GMI) testing and audit protocol.

- Responsible sourcing and manufacturing standard using GMI to develop over 10 years.

- Commercial horticulture to use only responsibly sourced and manufactured growing media through the establishment of a two-to-five-year programme of demonstrations supported by Defra and industry with knowledge transfer.

- "Choice editing" with majority of retailers stocking only products meeting performance standard and responsible sourcing and manufacturing standard within two years.

- All public-sector procurement required to source plants and products grown in sustainable growing media with Defra promoting examples in councils and Government departments.

- Consumers to make informed choices on buying growing media through point of sale/labelling.

- Improved confidence in the use of green waste through Association for Organics Recycling/WRAP work.

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