Despite UK-wide commitments to end the use of peat in horticulture, the legislation needed to make this happen is still frustratingly out of reach. This week, an official announcement on the ban in England was postponed because of the Conservative Party leadership election; and the other three administrations have no firm plans on the table.
Our governments’ next steps on this issue will decide the fate of our precious peatlands. Will they finally mark the end of a decades-long debate and the beginning of a future where peat is left undisturbed for nature, people, and the planet?
No time like the present
Arguments over whether to ban the sale of peat-based composts have been bouncing back and forth between environmentalists, governments, and the horticulture industry for nearly 30 years. However, with an ever-mounting body of evidence documenting the environmental toll of peat extraction, and clear public support for a ban, the question is finally not ‘if’ but ‘when’.
The UK and Welsh governments’ consultation on banning peat sales earlier this year was a significant step forward in the fight to keep peat in the ground; the Northern Irish and Scottish administrations have also committed to ending horticultural peat use. Now they need be held to those promises and work cohesively to deliver a total ban on commercial trade of peat across the UK – without further delay.
Peatlands are home to some of the UK’s most distinctive plant communities. Diverse assemblages of organisms have evolved in response to the low-nutrient conditions which has led to some remarkable adaptations, like the insect-eating sundews and butterworts, and the spongy blankets of colourful sphagnum mosses.
They are also one of our most important terrestrial carbon sinks. But, when bogs are drained, the accumulation of dead plant matter is exposed to the air and begins to break down, releasing carbon dioxide. This turns a carbon storage system into a vast emitter. Almost 80% of the UK’s peatbogs are now in degraded condition, contributing 5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, our wildlife and our planet are suffering the cost of our financially cheap single-use composts.
Is a peat ban necessary?
Despite tireless campaigning to stop peat mining and persuade gardeners to go peat-free, millions of tonnes are still being extracted from bogs in Ireland, the Baltic states and the UK every year to line the shelves of our garden centres and supermarkets. While millions of pounds are being invested into peatland restoration, it verges on insanity to continue extracting and selling peat as a cheap consumer product. A ban on all commercial trade of peat is needed to provide:
- A legal requirement to end peat use, where repeated voluntary targets have been consistently missed.
- A level playing-field for the market, so that peat-free companies don’t lose out to their competitors who take advantage of lower prices for peat than alternative materials.
- An end to imports and exports of peat, protecting peatlands in other countries as well here in the UK.
- A catalyst for sustainable gardening and horticulture overall, moving away from reliance on raw materials and artificial inputs, and towards ‘greener’ gardening and a circular economy.
Is a peat ban feasible?
Peat compost is not synonymous with gardening, yet many of us have come to rely on it as a cheap and convenient product. Peat-free gardening is entirely possible – and successful! There is plenty of information available on this, which needs to be promoted through garden centres, home improvement retailers and supermarkets, so that gardeners feel empowered to make the switch with confidence.
The UK is now home to over 100 nurseries which are entirely peat-free, and the IUCN’s Demonstrating Success report on horticulture shows clearly that peat-free growing is feasible for professional growers and amateur gardeners alike.
The beginning, not the end
Rather than just replacing peat with other unsustainably sourced materials there needs to be an industry-wide transformation towards a more climate-friendly operation. Despite centring around plants, the horticultural trade is not a ‘green’ sector in practice. It has a lot to answer for in terms of single-use plastics, waste, energy use, and chemical inputs. A ban on peat use provides an opportunity for the industry to shift towards more sustainable operations, production, and supply chains across the board.
Manufacturers and retailers can drive a shift in consumer attitude towards ‘greener’ gardening through the promotion of natural fertilisers and pest controls, home composting, planting of native species, support for pollinators and other wildlife, and the encouragement of perennial gardens rather than bought-in annual bedding plants.
Hand in hand with this, we need legislation to allow alternative materials such an anaerobic digestate, wood fibre and green waste to be reprocessed as growing media, along with support to ensure a just transition within the horticulture industry. Local processing of compostable waste from gardens and kitchens would generate jobs, reduce the requirement for peat, reduce waste going to landfill and move us closer towards the principles of the circular economy.
As such, banning the trade in peat marks an opportunity, rather than a threat, to move towards greener gardening and a horticulture industry which works with nature, not against it – a move which will guarantee the industry’s own sustainability in the long term.
Find out more:
Why we need to keep peat in the ground – and out of our gardens
What is peat? Why peat is important for nature. Are there good alternatives to peat in the garden? Plantlife’s campaign to keep peat in the ground
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Chris Hemmings March 2nd, 2023
I think a ban is not the way this should be handled. Peat is not a fossilised resource like coal or oil but has accumulated in recent millennia. Educated restraint is a far better direction whilst exploring routes to replace the peatstock we are present use in horticulture. We have to note that arable farming, compost based horticulture and back gardening all “burn” extensive amounts of soil carbon – you can’t get owt for nought, as is said.
There are so many conflicting messages – conservation agriculture simply will not feed us all and veganism is, for all it’s fetishist image, a far more carbon efficient way of feeding ourselves. ESPECIALLY if the food is home or locally grown! Brazilian soya fed beef or back garden veg, aided by mixed peat inclusive compost?
We need realistic not idealistic and pragmatic, workable futures. The climate agenda is now being run by BlackRock and Bill Gates – does that alone not make you feel uneasy???
2Jill Vaughan March 2nd, 2023
My husband & I run Delfland Nurseries Ltd, a commercial vegetable plant-raising business. We grow c.33 million plants a year of which
73% are organic. As of last year, we are peat-free apart from block-raised leafy salad and celery plants. To date, there are no peat-free alternatives that can be made into blocks – 80% peat is the best we can manage. We are still looking for peat-free options for blocks, and about to start some more trials. If no solution is found, leafy salads and celery could be grown in peat-free modules, but a new mechanical planting system would be needed.
More info here~
3Dave Darby March 2nd, 2023
The fact that BlackRock, Bill Gates and other corporate interests have any influence at all over our corrupt political system makes me very uneasy, yes. I’d prefer to see things like this overseen by local, democratic governance systems, federated for scale.
No-one has (or should have) a blueprint, but we’d prefer to support small-scale businesses and agriculture, to shorten supply chains, and to develop a low-impact economy to take economic power away from BlackRock, Bill Gates and the rest. We can’t have political power until we have economic power.
There are lots of studies now showing that small farmers can easily feed the world, in sustainable ways. https://www.iied.org/can-small-scale-farmers-feed-world. We don’t all have to be vegan. The more vegans the merrier as far as I’m concerned, but there’s room for a (much smaller amount of) meat, eggs, dairy and fish in the mix too – from small producers.
4Dave Darby March 2nd, 2023
Chris – NB – Low-impact economy: https://www.lowimpact.org/categories/low-impact-economy