Gardeners Remain Sidelined by The Government’s Sustainable Growing Media Task Force on Ending Peat Use. Don’t We Count?

With efforts to end peat use apparently being stymied by vested interests, and amid distracting talk of whether all peat is ‘bad’, isn’t it time the government’s Task Force on peat got down to the job of actually talking to the folk responsible for two thirds of UK peat use?

Some interesting reading has just been quietly published, which so far seems to have made barely a ripple in the gardening world you and I inhabit – the world where dirt-under-the-fingernails stuff actually happens in our back gardens and on our allotments. The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force (SGMTF), set up by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), has just published its Interim Report (online, of course, so, as with all these things, rather restricting its reach). The SGMTF (originally called the Peat Task Force) was set up in June 2011 to:

 “… identify the specific barriers (economic, technological, legislative and cultural) that are constraining all markets (amateur gardener, professional etc) from phasing out of the use of peat in horticulture in England and identify and prioritise recommendations for actions that Government, industry, retailers and other key stakeholders should take to remove these barriers. The Task Force should work with relevant stakeholders to begin the process of breaking down these barriers and develop a comprehensive plan for future action.”

That last sentence raises a smile. In case you’re wondering what a ‘stakeholder’ is, it’s essentially anyone who has a keen interest, as a provider or an end user, in the topic being discussed. Gardeners like you and me (well, not me as I don’t use any peat) use two out of every three bags of peat compost here in the UK (with much of that peat being imported from overseas). That’s two thirds of all peat compost in the UK being used on our plots, meaning gardeners use more peat in the UK than anyone else, including commercial horticulture. Does that make us gardeners ‘key’ and ‘relevant’ stakeholders? Of course it does. So is the SGMTF talking to us gardeners – the end user – via our gardening media, the internet, or in other way? Not on your nelly.

When I asked (with my gardening journalist head on) the SGMTF chair Dr Alan Knight if I could attend the SGMTF meetings, then report back to my fellow gardeners on its work and progress, I was told “No, the press aren’t invited”. SGMTF meetings have also been held under the Chatham House Rule, whereby ‘When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed’.

So even if I had been allowed to attend, to simply observe, as a key and relevant stakeholder (i.e. a gardener), I would have been expected to undergo some kind of memory-wipe to ensure I forgot who said what, to who and for what reason they said it. So much for engaging with ‘key stakeholders’ in an open and transparent process. I have no idea if other gardening journalists asked the same question, knowing this is a hugely important topic that affects each and every gardener, but if they didn’t, shame on them. Sidelining gardeners has so far been been a mistake: how can any group of professionals who are so close to and focused on their areas of expertise possibly make the best decisions when they won’t talk to the majority stakeholders?

So who’s on the SGMTF? In a nutshell, businesses, big and small, retailers, industry groups, commercial/ornamental growers and ‘others’, such as Friends of the Earth and the Royal Horticultural Society – the closest the SGMTF seems to have to a gardening input (although, as one of its members, the RHS hasn’t yet asked me what I think). To be fair, there are companies involved who are in the business of helping gardeners grow plants without peat – and therefore without the damage that peat mining indisputably does to the natural world. So we have a Task Force, with all due respect to its individual members, that’s effectively made up of minority stakeholders. My wandering thoughts range from how weird is that, to foxes being asked to look out for the chickens…

And as if to add insult to injury, some of the companies on the SGMTF are producing peat-free composts that, as my garden trials are showing, aren’t even fit for gardening. Go see for yourself. That’s pretty weird too, but I’m glad at least one company on the SGMTF is producing some of the best-performing peat-frees available to gardeners, while another is responding to a dramatic surge of interest in going peat-free among commercial producers.

I recommend every gardener in the land reads the Interim Report. It’s mercifully short, although it’s laced with the kind of gobbledegook you’d expect from a government-convened process that has to handle all of its participants with infant gloves. But there are a few things worth highlighting.

The first, and perhaps the one that will continue to entangle the whole process, is a comment from Dr Alan Knight’s ‘personal’ foreword:

“… as someone who has worked at the interface between sustainable development and business I remain bemused at the lack of sector wide collaboration or even just a narrative on how the UK horticulture sector will ensure it is enhanced rather than damaged by sustainability trends.”

My reading is that Dr Knight is pretty frustrated by an industry that loves to talk up ‘green’, but starts kicking and screaming when someone suggests it might try out the colour for itself. And haven’t we been here before? We’ve had government targets to end peat use, and they’ve been missed. Argument, and lack of the collaboration that Dr Knight laments, works wonders if what you want to bag up and sell is peat. Collaboration might risk fundamental change. No business which mines a finite, non-renewable resource, while dumping the cost of doing so on the environment is likely to be first in the queue to face ecological reality. Especially when it’s had a smattering of vocal pro-peat pundits drip-feeding misinformation about the ‘renewability’ of peat to gardeners for years.

Those same pundits will no doubt be gleefully polishing their pencils at the rather unfortunate idea that the SGMTF now wants to float into the discussion – the question of whether all peat is ‘bad’, and whether there can be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ peat. If you think about it, imbuing this brown carbon with such qualities is actually a bit barmy. Peat isn’t good or bad, it’s peat, it’s what we do with it (if anything at all) that’s a good or a bad thing. The logic of this good/bad thinking is elusive. Just because some peatlands have been damaged and degraded by human activity, does that mean that that peat is ‘good’ for the businesses that want to mine it? Equally, is ‘bad peat’ that which peat miners want to take from undamaged lowland peat bogs, because it’ll completely destroy fragile peatland ecosystems? Could the SGMTF tell us? We’re likely to see plenty more smoke and mirrors around this particular topic, but the fingerprints of vested interests are evident.

Let’s imagine there was such a thing as ‘really good peat’. Where would it come from? We know peat forms at 1mm a year, yet peat mining companies remove on average 20cm annually – or 200 year’s worth – and keep going until they run out, then move on to another peat bog. Really good peat would be that which formed at such a rate as to replenish what’s been taken, not in some wishful distant land, but there on that very spot where mining is now taking place. Of course this doesn’t happen. For it to happen the bog, which has already long lost its living, peat-forming surface, would need to be completely restored to a fully functional, peat-forming wetland populated with the appropriate species of sphagnum moss. None of this is easy or even successful in all cases when nearby water tables have been irreparably damaged. All the company then has to do is sit back and wait, for 200 years, for the peat they’ve just taken to be renewed. I’ve found no business plans of any peat mining company that work on a century-by-century timescale (if you have, please pop a link in the comments below as I think even the peat miners would like to see it).

Possibly the most insulting part of the SGMTF’s Interim Report is the utter disdain it shows toward us key stakeholders (yes, us gardeners who use two out of every three bags of peat compost in the UK). As you’d expect, our dismissal comes in a short section of the report headed ‘Consumer communications’. In the project examining ‘Consumer messages and green claims’, we have:

“A review has been completed of all of the claims and labelling of products on the market. The messaging and presentation is very different across different ranges with inconsistent messages being provided to consumers. Therefore, it is not surprising that consumers and retail staff are finding it difficult to choose the ‘right’ product. If we need customer engagement with this issue, then there needs to be a far greater level of consistency of language, messaging and labelling. However, there is emerging consensus that the required changes are best driven by choice editing and that informed consumer choice does not need to be pushed. Of course, this relies on the product being of a suitable quality to deliver the required performance.”

Much of this, of course, is true, but the bit that’s been conveniently overlooked is a review of the messages that are transmitted by the UK gardening media, including the misinformation that frequently makes it, unchallenged, time and again, into print. The peat-free compost market has been usefully suppressed by spurious but persistent ‘all peat-free is rubbish’ claims, although that particular myth is last finally being busted.

No one would argue that us key stakeholders (gardeners) need peat-free composts that grow great plants, and these products are already out there. But what really does stick in the throat is the idea that we no longer need to think about the products and materials we use to garden with – someone else will edit our choice and decide for us. Well, no thanks to all that, I actually want to know all about where the things I’m sold to grow plants with have come from, who made them, what environmental impact did bringing them about have, and so on. Like many other gardeners, I’ve been misinformed enough by people who should be doing a better job, so I have no desire to be even less informed about what makes a good peat-free compost. Information? Bring it on.

There’s plenty more in this report deserving close scrutiny by everyone who has an interest in how their gardening activities affect the wider world. By distancing itself from those who currently use the most peat of all, the SGMTF has not only shown how little it values the lessons from our own back gardens, it risks moving gardeners even further away from a connection with the natural world. Years of argy-bargy over peat use have caused a polarisation of views that have left many gardeners confused or simply switched off to the importance of what’s being talked about.

But there’s a great story here, one that transcends even the short-term, economics-must-triumph thinking inevitably driving certain members of the SGMTF. It’s a story about how human beings use precious natural resources, how they find the wisdom to know when it’s time to stop using something before it does more harm and finally runs out, and it’s about how we ensure one of the most pleasurable and environmentally beneficial of all human activities – gardening – flourishes without damaging further our shared natural world.

Let’s end on a high note (well perhaps). We gardeners are being allowed a public peek into the workings of the SGMTF, on the morning of 7 June 2012, via an ‘open stakeholder event’, scheduled to be held in London (I’ve already asked that this be moved to a central UK location, such as Birmingham, to allow all UK gardeners a better chance to attend). This is a free event to attend, and if you’re a key gardening stakeholder in this debate (even if you’re being treated otherwise), this might be your last chance to have your voice heard. You do need to register an interest by 30 April 2012, by emailing

A morning in June is better than nowt, but if nothing else, it will at least be a chance for gardeners to ask for much more engagement with the SGMTF than it’s had so far.

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1 Response to Gardeners Remain Sidelined by The Government’s Sustainable Growing Media Task Force on Ending Peat Use. Don’t We Count?

  1. Cherry Lavell says:

    Splendid piece, just what I feel myself only I could not expressed it half so eloquently or knowledgeably. How do we get this news out to those who need to know? I shall be passing it on to the three gardening groups I belong to, for a start! And I shall ask FoE what exactly is their involvement in SGMTF, because I don’t recollect their telling me (though I could just about have missed it).

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