Hartley Magazine

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Market farces

With just two years left until the 2020 target for all gardening to be peat-free, it’s now obvious that ‘the market’ should never have been trusted to lead the way.

Let’s hit pause on pantomime season, and jog our memories. This is from Richard Benyon, the then Natural Environment Minister, in December 2010:

‘The horticultural industry has made real progress in reducing peat use, but I want to see peat eliminated from the amateur gardener market [in England] by 2020. We need to go further if we are to protect our natural environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This will be challenging, but more sustainable and good quality peat-free alternatives are already available, and I believe it is achievable for peat to be phased out in all markets before 2030.’

Hollyhocks thriving in SylvaGrow With Added John Innes, a modern peat-free compost awarded a Which? Gardening Best Buy for seed sowing. It’s great for growing plants on, too.

Seven years on, some of the key components of meeting this government goal (which is voluntary; there is no looming ‘ban’) are in place. A clutch of top quality peat-free composts are now lauded by a proliferating band of aware, responsible and nature-savvy gardeners. One range in particular – SylvaGrow – consistently bags Which? Gardening Best Buy gongs year on year. It’s no surprise: SylvaGrow is the same mix that many enlightened growers use to fuel their peat-free businesses. Last spring, SylvaGrow Multipurpose Compost, along with Fertile Fibre Multipurpose, snatched two out of three Which? Best Buys for container growing, beating some of the priciest nature-wrecking peat-based composts hands down. SylvaGrow With Added John Innes also earned a Best Buy gong for sowing seeds. Dalefoot’s Wool Compost range gains plaudits widely, from gardeners and growers, although it’s yet to secure a Which? Best Buy (that’s another story). Yes, the ‘good quality peat-free alternatives’ have landed. With a thud.

Thanks to social media (check out Twitter’s #peatfree hashtag), discussion around the urgent need to switch to peat-free gardening has never been livelier. We gardeners haven’t just been connecting with each other to swap tips and to celebrate our plant-growing successes, we’ve linked up with the makers and sellers of peat-free compost, and with the nurserypeople who swear by it (some are serial gold medal-winners at top flower shows). This has helped to build what the pro-peat pundits have spent decades trying to quash: confidence in growing without peat. It’s no wonder they’ve gone shtum; their game of smears is up, and the truth is out. Confidence, based on back-garden success, is blossoming. But, despite these vital components being in place, others remain curiously absent.

Having scrutinised the mood music coming from those charged with ensuring that gardening in England is peat-free in just eight seasons’ time, it’s becoming clear why. I should have rumbled this lot of smoke and mirrors long back, but I grasped a thread of hope that the UK’s gardening industry could – with a decade to hand – honour the 2020 goal. Naivety lulled me into believing that the industry body responsible for delivering peat-free gardening – the Growing Media Association (GMA) – could ever be up to the job. But how can it be, when it’s comprised largely of businesses with the most to lose: the Big Peat miners. Just like turkeys avoid ballot boxes at Christmas, the GMA seems determined to flunk hitting the 2020 deadline. More smoke clears on finding that the chair of the GMA runs Bord na Mona’s UK operations; Bord na Mona is a big miner of Irish peat. Does the phrase ‘putting a fox in charge of the chickens’ ring a bell?

My dahlias thrived in Fertile Fibre Multipurpose, one of two peat-free mixes awarded 2017 Which? Best Buy gongs for container gardening.

Let’s slip in another memory jogger: gardening is responsible for 70 percent of the peat used each year in the UK. It’s our gardening pound that ensures that carbon-storing peat bogs both here and abroad continue to be drained and dug up. The other 30 percent is used mostly by growers (the aim is for these minority stakeholders to stop using peat by 2030). With peat used in gardening driving the ongoing destruction of our peatlands, surely that’s where the GMA’s efforts to meet the 2020 deadline should be focused – in changing our buying habits to kill off the demand for peat. You would think so, but it seems I’m not the only one suffering an attack of naivety.

In September, the trade magazine Horticulture Week quoted a representative from the Horticultural Trades Association, a business lobbying group under whose umbrella the GMA sits. Amid the predictable ‘we’re committed to peat reduction targets’ rhetoric, one comment stood out: ‘the market has to decide’. Presumably, this means it’s up to those much-worshipped ‘market forces’ to fix the problem and so deliver peat-free gardening. So far so good, because we gardeners are, collectively and effectively, ‘the market’. Therefore, the power to reconfigure our compost market, to turn England (and hopefully the rest of the UK) peat-free by 2020, rests ultimately with us and how we spend our coveted gardening pounds. We’ve got the power, it seems, so steering this ship to its peat-free port ought to be a doddle. But there’s a hitch, a big one, revealing the naivety (or perhaps something less innocent) in the GMA’s approach.

For any market to ‘decide’, there has to be information, freely and widely available, for buying decisions to be based on. If we gardeners constitute the market, we need information to help us decide where to invest our gardening pound; do we buy nature-wrecking, climate-destabilising and unsustainable peat-based compost, or plump for peat-free potting mixes based on raw materials that are both renewable and ecologically sustainable? It’s a no-brainer, right? Wrong. If we gardened in the make-believe world the GMA seems to inhabit, all would be well. The market would, very swiftly, decide; most folk, when they actually understand the environmental havoc caused by peat mining, will switch to peat-free (perhaps choosing a proven Best Buy; see above).

Some overdue potting-on revealed strong, healthy roots on these tomatoes sown in SylvaGrow Multipurpose – the same peat-free compost that enlightened growers are using to power their businesses.

But here’s the big hitch: assuming that everyone in the UK who enjoys time out in their garden, and who buys compost, has even a vague awareness of the issues around peat mining, let alone an understanding of why we need to end peat use, is a serious mistake. It assumes a market that’s fully versed in the pros and cons of all of the goods available, allowing an informed choice to be made (when some GMA members can’t even label their bags of compost to say what’s in them, this backfires anyway). The truth is, the keen, informed gardeners that currently ‘get’ this are but a modest band. The majority – and it needs most people to join in to fundamentally reshape a consumer market – are still buying their ‘bags of dirt’ in blissful ignorance. This majority, who enjoy growing a few flowers or a bit of veg, but don’t follow gardening on the TV or radio, don’t read gardening magazines or columns, and don’t do garden-related social media, wouldn’t know a nature-friendly compost if you emptied a bag of it over them. Unsurprisingly, I’m aware of no public information campaigns over the last seven years, spearheaded by the GMA, that have sought to inform our nation of non-gardeners about the consequences of the choice they make when buying that bag of dirt.

So here’s the bottom line. The widespread information and awareness we all need, as the collective market, to make an informed choice is all but non-existent, rendering ‘the market has to decide’ mere corporate gobbledygook (if only we could bag and sell that). There are other hitches, too. The GMA likes to claim that peat-free composts are now more widely available. This is questionable, but even were it true, simply having a bag labelled ‘peat-free’ on sale is no guarantee of success when the gardener (or curious non-gardener) gets it home; most peat-free composts are barely fit for purpose. To assist the market in ‘deciding’, it’s also vital that the media stops giving vacuous advice to ‘use a peat-free compost’ and instead tells its audience which specific products are worth their gardening pound (note to media: see above). It’s then incumbent on retailers to stock what their customers actually ask for – not some underperforming bandwagon product to give the illusion of choice.

Voluntary self-regulation, especially where foxes look after chickens, has and will continue to fail. Let’s hear no more from the GMA on how ‘the market has to decide’. Without widespread information and awareness, the market simply can’t decide. There is no market fix here, and there won’t be by 2020; this will be a market failure driven by misguided thinking. It will be another goal missed, as the impoverishment of our natural world continues. We urgently need a fresh approach, led by those with no vested interests, but with big sticks to whip the foxes, finally, into shape.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener