Peat usage - the discussion continues

As a BBC special on peat shows, the subject is still hotly debated. Matthew Appleby reports.

Peat will be in the spotlight again when BBC Gardeners' World presenter Toby Buckland broadcasts an hour-long peat special on BBC2 today (27 March). But if figures on sales of peat-reduced products are to be believed, the peat issue doesn't seem to be a big issue any more.

GfK Retail & Technology says peat-based compost sales grew 6.6 per cent in volume in 2008 while peat-free sales fell 2.7 per cent. But this does not show what part peat-reduced sales were playing in the growth of peat-based sales.

However, peat is enough of an issue for the Government to have several committees working on finding out its environmental impact. And Defra is rumoured to be planning a campaign to raise consumer awareness before the Government's 2010 target for 90 per cent peat reduction is reached. The BBC programme may accelerate Defra's movement on reducing peat, particularly if committees find more evidence on the importance of peat bogs as carbon sinks and sponges for water. The issue highlights Defra's role as an environmental agency rather than one that supports the agriculture and horticulture industries.

A Defra representative said: "Our target to reduce the use of peat has helped drive change, and for the first time more than half the market for growing media and soil improvers is peat-free. We can all do more, however, and gardeners need to consider the effect of what they buy and use. The Government is working with the horticulture industry and NGOs on the way forward beyond 2010."

Industry figures featured in the Gardeners' World special include Westland technical director Jamie Robinson, peat supporter Peter Seabrook and HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe, who also organises the Growing Media Initiative (GMI). The GMI aims to bring together all sides of the debate to improve sustainable peat use.

The past two summers have been wet and harvest of peat was down in the 70 per cent range of full capacity. Price pressures caused by rising fuel and fertiliser costs and lower harvests are worrying, but demand remains high.

The GMI will meet next week and the BBC programme is sure to be on the agenda. Some fear that the special will edit its contributors' interviews so that the BBC's pre-decided conclusion comes out regardless.

Seabrook said in the Sun last week: "Remember peat is a renewable resource and water levels are reinstated after harvest." He says this statement will be read by nine million Sun readers while the BBC programme will be watched by only two million.

While Briercliffe says the BBC approached the programme from a neutral point of view, Buckland's view is clear. In the BBC Gardeners' World magazine this month, he says: "I've been weaning myself off peat for the past eight years, buying peat-free multipurpose compost and experimenting with my own potting mixes.

"Yet it was just 10 years ago, when I worked at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, that going peat-free seemed like a pipedream.

"Technology has moved on - peat-free compost is available in garden centres today and can give just as good results as its peat rivals.

"For me, the greatest development in the past 10 years is (commercial) weed-and disease-free green compost."

Looking at growing media commercially is obviously more important for the industry than the BBC programme - although the BBC show may damage the commercial market for peat.

Briercliffe says growing media companies have done more than anyone else to meet the targets by producing peat-free and peat-reduced mixes. However, he adds that, due to quality issues, peat-free products are usually not a viable option for commercial growers.

He says the consumer market is a more important focus and innovations there will filter down to growers. "We're not going to reach the 2010 target but we're doing as much as is possible in a consumer marketplace that is not interested in the topic."

New Growing Media Association (GMA) chairman Martin Breddy, who is Scotts Miracle Gro general manager, says he hopes viewers of the BBC programme would continue to garden "in the way they wished" after the broadcast. After all, in tough times, the bottom line is what counts more than any vague research into getting rid of the staple-bought growing media of most growers as well as gardeners. Breddy says peat producers support the GMI's aim to encourage sensible dialogue among stakeholders beyond 2010.

Breddy would not say what his goals were at the GMA until they are endorsed by members next week, but "like any trade association, we exist to look after the interests of our membership".

He says the issues are sustainability and value for money. "I would encourage people to keep gardening in these recessionary times. We need to make sure the needs of people in the growing media industry are looked after in the tough economic climate."

B&Q, backed by TV gardener Chris Beardshaw, stopped selling 100 per cent peat bales this spring. But the retailer does sell peat grow bags - supplied by Bord na Mona, which burns 97 per cent of its peat for electricity.

THE ORGANISATIONS

Growing Media Association is a trade body representing peat and other growing media suppliers.

Growing Media Initiative is an HTA-organised group - including anti-peat groups, Defra, peat companies and retailers - that discusses ways to cut peat use. Members include: B&Q, Homebase, Vital Earth, Bord na Mona, ADAS, Melcourt, Scotts, Westland.


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