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Growing media task force pledges to improve sustainability

Thursday 13 September 2012

The Defra-appointed Sustainable Growing Media Task Force has met with industry representatives and Defra officials to provide feedback on a report published at the end of June, which proposes a roadmap towards greater sustainability.


The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force and industry partners have responded to a report produced by the task force's chair

In the meeting on Tuesday (11th September), chaired jointly by HDC, NFU and HTA, there was “broad agreement” that the report, compiled by Task Force Chair Dr Alan Knight, provides a workable summary of the environmental, social and economic factors in view to improving the sustainability of growing media, those present said.


The debate over growing media is becoming ever more fraught as the UK struggles to meet its emissions targets. Although the industry has been reluctant to abandon or even steadily reduce its reliance on peat, a hugely effective but non-renewable growing media with an enormous ecological footprint, there is a growing recognition that this is not only desirable but essential to building a resilient food system. As well as providing rich habitats for threatened species of flora and fauna, peatlands are huge carbon sinks, and many also hold other gasses including the much more potent greenhouse gas methane.


Worldwide, peatlands are thought to contain 180 to 455 billion metric tons of sequestered carbon; however, when peat is extracted, the greenhouse gasses trapped within it escape into the atmosphere. Over the past year, horticulture groups have appealed to government to improve green waste recycling, which could potentially provide better growing media, but which has been marred by unchecked contamination.

Task force identifies fresh areas of work


At its meeting this week, the Task Force announced it has identified several project streams which it claims will help deliver “optimum results” for the UK horticultural industry, and improve the resilience of the country’s supply of growing media. Instead of looking exclusively at peat, the task force has begun assessing the environmental, social and economic credentials of the whole range of growing media materials.


Alan Knight’s report provides a roadmap of actions over the next decade that will help drive change for both the amateur and professional market. Knight said growers, retailers, manufacturers, government and researchers all have an obligation to work together to take the task force’s work forward.


Key actions he identified include:


  • Development of a performance standard for amateur bagged media
  • Completion of the RHS-led work on defining sustainability criteria for all growing media ingredients and integration of this into an auditable industry scheme (potentially via the Growing Media Initiative)
  • Strengthened links and co-operation with European partners to ensure a level European playing field
  • Development of a five year R&D plan to address commercial horticulture’s technical concerns
  • Promotion and transfer of information generated by nursery growing media trials
  • Raising awareness of the issues around growing media sustainability with the landscape specifier and contractor sector
  • Development of procurement guidance for public sector landscape tenders
  • Further retailer and consumer education through funded programmes and improved labelling
  • Working with Environment Agency to remove blockages that exist for using waste materials within growing media
  • Establishment of a working group to oversee progress against the roadmap


However, some of the chair’s conclusions are open to criticism. His suggestion that, contrary to the initial aims of the Task Force, which was set up to find an environmentally acceptable alternative to peat,  “economic sustainability needs to underpin any viable solutions” seems to run counter to the task force’s stated purpose. Knight said “This approach would safeguard the UK’s commercial interests whilst achieving Defra’s goals of leading the debate on sustainability of growing media in the EU market,” however there are concerns that, by prioritising profitability and reducing the focus on peat, the Task Force is diluting its efficacy.


To this end, the Task Force called on Defra Ministers to ensure that Government supports “the broader approach to a sustainable future rather than a pre-occupation with peat and reduction targets.” The discomforting news comes at a time when other areas of government are abandoning prior claims to sustainability, in favour of a shift towards ‘growth at all costs.’ This approach has been lamented as naïve short-termism by environmentalists.


Although industry has welcomed the ‘wider focus,’ and reduced emphasis on peat, which remains a significant polluter, environmental and sustainable farming groups have reacted strongly. Organic certification body The Soil Association, which is backing the phasing out of peat, said the government and industry approach adopted in the report “does not go far enough in recognising that new approaches will be needed in a new era of resource and climate constrained agriculture, rather than simply more of the same.”


The organisation offered a highly critical assessment of the government’s approach to food policy as a whole on Wednesday, following the release of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on sustainable food. A soil Association spokesperson said, “We urge the Government to support a radically different model of agricultural innovation from the top-heavy system where problems are defined and tackled by lab scientists, research funders and marketers, then sold to farmers. We urge the Government to start with the real needs of farmers and the public, and fully involve them in finding humane and workable solutions.”


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