Sparrow and Finch Gardening UK peatlands being destroyed for growing mushrooms, lettuce, and indoor plants

UK peatlands being destroyed for growing mushrooms, lettuce, and indoor plants

I raised houseplants to help me cope with the isolation of those long days. I was suddenly stuck at home and had plenty of time to learn how to water a Swiss cheese plant that is fussy, as well as train devil’s-ivy so it would delicately frame our bookcases.

The plants I ordered online often came with a passport. The majority of them had come from Europe, and all shared the same tagline: contained a peat.

These labels filled me with horror as a peatland researcher. Hidden Peat is a new campaign by The Wildlife Trusts that highlights the presence of peat on all kinds of consumer products, including house plants.

Peatlands such as bogs or fens store more carbon dioxide than the combined forests of the world. These peatlands trap carbon for hundreds of years, preventing its release into the air as greenhouse gases, which would further warm our climate.

Peatlands provide a variety of environmental benefits. Wildlife can thrive in these wetlands, which provide habitats for insects, reptiles, and wetland bird species. They offer more than 70% of our drinking water and protect our homes against flooding.

Why is peat ripped out of these ecosystems and then stuffed into plant pots?

From source to sink

Over the past century, peatlands were systematically drained and farmed. They have also been dug up, sold, and reclaimed. Only 1 % of the lowland peat in the UK is left in its natural form.

It is now one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions within the UK land use sector. Microbes in peat soils break down the plant matter and release greenhouse gases like methane when they are drained.

The majority of peat excavated, sold, and bagged in the UK is used to grow plants. This problem is becoming more and more apparent to gardeners. In recent years, peat-free compost has become more popular, and retailers have begun to phase out bagged compost based on peat.

The UK government has announced that they will ban the sale of any peat-based compost before 2024. This legislation is not yet written, and it’s unlikely that it will be passed before the end of the current Parliament.

This ban, even if it were to become law, would still only affect the sale of bagged compost based on peat that you can buy in a garden center. Legislation affecting commercial growers will not be expected before 2030. The continued destruction of peatlands in the UK could be hidden within supply chains even after we stop spreading it in our gardens.

Hide-and-seek peat.

It’s nearly impossible for consumers to identify products that contain peat or that use peat as a component in their manufacturing. Peat is used in all large-scale commercial mushrooms and for the production of most leafy green salads. It is the peaty smell that gives the whisky its distinctive aroma. I also found out that it’s a very popular medium for growing potted plants.

You’d be hard-pressed to find lettuce without peat in the supermarket. In the Hidden Peat campaign, consumers are asked to demand clear labels that will allow shoppers to identify products containing peat more easily. The Hidden Peat campaign encourages shoppers to require that retailers be transparent about their commitment to eliminating peat from supply chains.

Ask your local supermarket how they plan on phasing out peat in their products. Some supermarkets invest in new technologies to produce mushrooms without peat.

Check the labels of potted plants in garden centers or buy plants from nurseries that do not use peat. The Royal Horticultural Society has listed more than 70 UK nurseries that are dedicated to growing without peat.

Please write to your MP and ask them to support the ban on peat mining and, more importantly, peat products and products containing peat in the UK. This would ensure that peat is not imported solely from other European countries.

Pilots and Progress

The UK government announced PS3.1m in funding to pilot projects that rewet lowland peat and preserve it. Peat restoration is seen as an important cornerstone for net zero ambitions. This campaign calls for a further acceleration of peatland regeneration across the UK.

Dr. Casey Bryce (left) uses a corer to take samples three meters deep in a peat bog. Casey Bryce Author provided (no re-use)

In my research on the science behind the restoration of peatland, I have seen first-hand the immense effort that is involved: the construction of dams in order to block the old agricultural drainage ditches and the delicate management and monitoring of water levels.

I spend a great deal of time collecting samples, monitoring progress, and reporting results to land managers. Like many conservationists, I also work hard to find ways of preserving these important habitats.

Sometimes, a digger on the adjacent field can do more damage in one day than we would be able to undo in our lifetime. This is the absurdity of UK peatland policy.

We invest heavily in restoring peatlands but fail to ban their removal – the action that would have had the greatest impact. We can keep peat on the ground by ensuring that it is removed from our garden compost and weeded off of our supply chain.

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