This was the question the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH) tried to answer in a panel session on Thursday, 15 June, at GreenTech RAI Amsterdam.
The industry is united in wanting to create a more sustainable sector to meet the needs of future generations. Growing media is an integral component of container-grown plant production and has come under increasing scrutiny relating to its environmental impact. Since the 1990s, growers in the UK have been faced with pressure from campaigners and the Government to reduce the use of peat. Recently the UK government has decided to bring forward its ban on the commercial use of peat in plant production from 2030 to 2026. This move will force the sector to move to peat-free production much more quickly than expected.
Many factors will make this transition difficult, including the availability, quality and cost of alternatives and the research required to produce quality plants in alternatives. Other European countries are also being challenged in this area and are active in seeking sustainable growing media solutions.
As in the UK, Europe has a mix of views and opinions on this topic.
The position of Growing Media Europe (GME) is quite firm in still supporting the ongoing use of peat and other materials. They have done much research on Life Cycle Analysis and made the point that Europe can meet the rising demand for food and meet other environmental requirements without using peat as a material that ticks all the other boxes; it just isn’t there yet.
Manufacturers showed a more proactive approach. It was interesting to hear Klassman MD Moritz Boeking on the panel, and it is clear that his company is and has been doing extensive research on alternatives and even with innovations like artificially grown sphagnum.
They see the writing on the wall for peat in Europe, yet they are more confident in a longer-term and less urgent transition than in the UK.
The transition in the UK has hardly been rushed either, as the Government has been wanting to remove peat from horticulture for 30 years. However, implementing it has been impossible because the commercial drivers were not there. The legislation was always going to be the only way to ensure change, and the 2030 date would have managed that.
AIPH’s Secretary General Tim Briercliffe believes that bringing that date forward is extremely foolish, not only because he is sure it will prevent an orderly transition but will also fail to achieve any additional environmental benefit.
Some EU countries like Germany are pushing hard towards peat-free and non-EU like Switzerland.
Briercliffe says, “Across the rest of Europe, there is a more managed approach with industry, and it is hard to see all EU countries agreeing to a ban in the same way the UK has, at least not in timescales, anything like as quick.
“Although countries like Germany can push, they can’t ban it unless the whole EU agrees.”
That said, the overall push for sustainable production in Europe is strong, and growers can see this.
Many are working on looking for alternatives. For example, Leonardo Capitanio from Vivai Capitanio in southern Italy has hired someone specifically to research this for his company. Unlike for peat, there will be no one size fits all solution, and while wood-based materials might have a strong place in the UK, they are simply not available in other areas such as in Italy. They are looking at using olive bark but find challenges with the tannins.
A very innovative grower, Charl Goossens from Gova BV in the Netherlands, supplies Laurus to the UK market. He has worked extensively on researching alternatives and is peat-free. They grow and process Miscanthus grass specifically for this purpose and sell it to other local growers too. But this wouldn’t work in hot climates where water is scarce, and that crop wouldn’t grow well.
The panel gave a flavour of the challenges faced but also brought out the innovative players in our industry.
The impending ban in the UK has certainly stimulated much action in Europe, particularly the Netherlands. They will find solutions with their spirit of collaboration and innovation, but they really want the solutions to be genuinely sustainable.
Briercliffe concludes, “They don’t want to find themselves in the situation of finding an alternative which is also considered unacceptable sometime in the future.”