Oversimplification ‘harms chance of consensus on peat’

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PEAT replacement in gardening and horticulture is a complicated issue which has suffered from over-simplification, says the chairman of the body set up to look at the government’s proposals.

The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force has just published a half-time report on its work, with a foreword by chairman Alan Knight, a consultant to big business on environmental issues.

Dr Knight says it will be hard to win around the pressure groups which have achieved a consensus that “all peat is bad”. But he suggests it might just be possible to move to “some peat harvesting might be okay” if the growing industry can come up with “clear, agreed, auditable standards for sustainable or responsible extraction”.

So far, he says, he is struck by the absence of any agreed strategy for making sure UK horticulture is not damaged by the pressures for sustainability.

“This Task Force is therefore as much about the sustainability of UK horticulture as it is about growing media.

“It is about how the sector chooses to embrace complexity, ambiguity and change. How any sector – including the environmental groups and horticulture – face up to this is their choice but what I have seen in this Task Force is that the creation of an argument based on over-simplifications and missing evidence serves to stop either side from succeeding in their goals.

“I hope the Task Force is making progress in stopping the argument and creating a consensus on the way forward.

“The work of the Task Force should be seen as the start of a new, more nuanced, conversation.”

Dr Knight does not comment on the practicality of the Government’s proposed deadlines for phasing out peat use in England – in the public sector by 2015, in gardening by 2020 and in horticulture by 2030.

But he does say there is a lot of work still to do and that both gardeners and professional growers need some agreed standards for measuring the quality of peat substitutes.

The lobby for a compromise will be pleased at the space he gives their arguments. But they will be disappointed that he rejects one of their main lines of argument – that the “carbon footprints” of peat alternatives should be measured against the environmental costs of continued extraction.

It would be impossible to get agreement on how carbon footprints should be calculated, he says. And it is beyond dispute that remaining peat reserves should be left as they are as far as possible.

However, he does agree that “ending the sales of peat in the UK does not automatically restore peat bogs”.

It has been argued that extraction of dried-out peat could be taxed to pay for the protection of remaining bogs and rewetting where it is practicable.

The report can be found at http://tinyurl.com/cvcrymy/