Task force hits peat impact stumbling block

Leading academic laments failure to establish precise nature of problem ahead of road map for eradication of peat use.

The impact of peat extraction has been debated - image: HW
The impact of peat extraction has been debated - image: HW

A row has erupted between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and peat experts after a leading academic said the interim Sustainable Growing Media Task Force report has yet to establish what the peat problem is - and cannot move forward ahead of the Dr Alan Knight-led Government committee's June "road map" due date.

The report, issued last week, listed progress on 12 projects. Defining the environmental problem, whether any peat use is acceptable and potential crop losses for growers from using unreliable growing media have emerged as the biggest issues.

Knight said the NGOs' remit was to be "reflecting on how environmental issues associated with peat extraction fit within the current environmental framework of natural capital, ecosystem services and climate change".

However, International Peat Society scientific advisory board chair Professor Jack Rieley said: "The most serious omission is the failure to identify what the problem actually is. This role was given to Friends of the Earth but it has not yet delivered it."

Rieley, who is also the UK Peat Society secretary, added: "The NGOs have been reflecting for more than 20 years so you might think they would know what the problem is. Since 99 per cent of England's peat bogs are already degraded (not from extraction for horticulture), they could be considered to have little 'natural' capital left and the climate change argument has been disproved."

Task force member and Sinclair chief executive Bernard Burns and Somerset Peat Producers Association secretary Ben Malin agreed. Burns said: "The lack of progress is particularly disappointing. Defining the problem is the most important and first step. Without consensus, any assessment is premature."

But Friends of the Earth campaigns director Craig Bennett said: "It's not our job to solve the horticulture industry's problem. Our money is given to us by our members to protect the natural environment, which we've been pretty effective at."

Bennett said last month's National Planning Policy Framework showed that there was no future for peat cutting and the Government had shown a firm commitment to ending peat use with its phase-out targets.

"We've opened our arms to the industry to try and help it achieve the targets and it's unfortunate that they are criticising us now," he added.

"They're hoping we might be able to indicate peat from some sources is better than others. I've been clear throughout this process - I can't see any narrative where some types of peat are inherently sustainable."

Bennett said he gave a recent presentation to the task force to widen the debate from peat just being "inherently unsustainable" to include using peat's adverse effect on climate change and carbon stores. "This is not an issue that has come out of nowhere," he added. "Why did industry bodies utterly fail to help their members achieve targets?"

HTA task force representative Tim Briercliffe said: "The industry has made great progress against huge technical and financial challenges."

On the quality of growing media, Lowaters managing director Ian Ashton said: "There is a consensus that there is a risk of using growing media that are not thoroughly tested and not technically as competent as existing mixes. There is certainly a need for thorough research bringing together growing-media manufacturers and growers.

"Most growers want to be more sustainable but we don't want to be put at risk by using materials that may not be available in the future or needing to change before we know what the technical answers are."

Growing media task force - Interim findings

The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force was established in June 2011 following the publication of the natural environment white paper and is made up of representatives from 35 organisations from across the growing-media supply chain.

Findings so far include:

- Green compost will not be the solution to peat replacement either in terms of complete replacement or its suitability for certain uses.

- The task force agreed that there was a need for a performance standard (for amateur products).

By 30 June 2012, the task force will issue a final report and road map for future growing-media use. See www.defra.gov.uk/peat-taskforce/files/SGMTF-Interim-Report1.pdf.

Supplier views on task force progress to date

- Catherine Dawson, technical director, Melcourt

"I like the practical approach of Alan Knight. Whatever is going on in the task force, we are experiencing a massive upsurge of interest from growers in our mixes with 60-70 per cent of growers we see running trials. I'm involved in the sustainability project and I welcome all materials being judged on the same criteria. We tell growers the biomass industry isn't about to swallow all the bark and that will be fleshed out by the project from now on."

- Ben Malin, Secretary, Somerset Peat Producers Association

"This report shows that significant progress has been made with performance and sustainability criteria, but in other areas progress has been very limited. We are still waiting for significant non-governmental organisation input into defining the problem and without that the task force cannot go much further.

"After the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework last week, however, we are left wondering whether this process is worth the huge commitment of time and effort that the industry has made. Even if the task force concludes that it is more responsible to source peat from archaic peatland, new permissions in England will not be given.

"An increasing proportion of peat will have to be imported from raised bogs, whatever the task force concludes. Why develop a performance standard and responsible sourcing criteria if the Government is not listening?"

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