Horticultural Peat: Prohibition of Sale

– in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 16 April 2024.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 1:16, 16 April 2024

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the prohibition of the sale in England of horticultural peat by the end of 2024; to provide for certain exemptions from that prohibition;
and for connected purposes.

Peatlands are the UK’s largest carbon store. They contain more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined and are home to some of our most iconic and rarest wildlife, such as the bittern, the swallowtail butterfly, the short-eared owl and the hen harrier, but less than 20% of our peatlands are in a near-natural state: 87% of England’s deep peat areas are degraded, damaged or dried out. This is caused by a range of factors including overgrazing and drainage for agriculture as well as extraction for compost and other growing media for gardening and horticulture.

Extraction degrades the state of the wider landscape, damaging wildlife habitats and reducing peat’s capacity to prevent flooding and filter water. And of course extraction means that stored carbon is released, contributing to climate change. The Bill would implement the 2022 commitment made by the Government to prohibit the use of peat products in amateur gardening in England by the end of the year.

In 2011 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced support for phasing out peat products with a commitment to legislate if a voluntary approach proved to be ineffective. The Government’s 2021 consultation received more than 5,000 responses, 95% of which supported a ban on retail peat sales. The Royal Horticultural Society has backed a ban, and Professor Alistair Griffiths, its director of science and collections, said in 2022:

“Peatlands are the world’s largest carbon store on land, with great potential to store carbon long term, helping to reach net zero…To tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, it is essential that we have a sustainable transition to peat-free alternative growing medias. The RHS stopped selling peat-based growing media bags in 2019 and will continue to work with DEFRA, industry and gardeners to accelerate the transition to peat-free.”

We take pride in being a gardening nation and the covid lockdown triggered increased enthusiasm for this great outdoor activity. There has already been a big shift to non-peat compost products thanks to the efforts of the horticulture industry, DEFRA Ministers, campaigners such as Monty Don, and responsible choices made by gardeners.

However, peat can still lurk in gardening products, such as potted house plants and trays of bedding plants. The presence of peat in these products is rarely labelled, meaning even the most ecologically committed gardener may not know it is there. Even the most effective information campaign can only go so far in changing behaviour. Gardeners should be able to buy from a garden centre without fear that their purchase will harm the environment elsewhere.

There are now reasonably priced peat-free composts using materials such as bark, coir and bracken. Thanks to a decision by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, solid digestate from anaerobic digestion will soon become another source of peat-free growing media. Peat alternatives for products such as potted plants are also available. Companies such as B&Q have gone peat-free, as has Kew gardens, and the Royal Horticultural Society is 98% of the way there. The consumer organisation Which? excludes peat-based compost from its product comparisons. While it acknowledges that some peat-free products cost more, it believes that there is now a good range of lower-cost options on the market.

The horticulture industry has had since 2011 to prepare for the phase-out of peat. Thirteen years on, some real progress has been made. Peat use more than halved between 2020 and the end of 2022, including a reduction of nearly 70% in the amateur sector. In 2022, professional use of peat fell below 50% of their total consumption of growing media for the first time, but UK horticulture still used 950,000 cubic metres of peat in 2022, including 471,000 cubic metres in the retail sector. I acknowledge that only a comparatively small proportion of the UK’s peat is affected by extraction for horticultural products, but by targeting the demand for peat, we can help keep it in the ground both here and overseas, preventing the damaging release of carbon.

As well as an immediate ban on peat products for retail use by the general public, the Bill would give Ministers the power to use secondary legislation to extend that ban to professional horticulture on a future date. That reflects the fact that there are still barriers to be overcome before we can be confident that reasonably priced peat-free products and production materials are available for the professional sector. However, we need progress there, too, and I urge the Government to press ahead with a clear timetable for the full transition to peat-free products across the horticulture sector. Limited exceptions to the ban will be needed, some of which may need to be permanent, such as in relation to science and research and rare plants, but the 2030 target has been on the table for more than a decade. I call on the industry and the Government to ensure that meaningful change is delivered by the time we reach that 2030 milestone so that UK horticulture moves into its peat-free future and we seize the opportunity to become a global leader in the supply of sustainable compost and growing media.

The Bill should be just one part of a wider strategy to achieve the Government’s ambitious target to restore 35,000 hectares of peat by the end of 2025. The United Kingdom is custodian of 3 million hectares of peatland habitats. That includes 13% of the world’s blanket bog, which is a globally rare ecosystem protected by international treaties, one example of which I was pleased to visit in County Fermanagh in 2014. More money is being invested in peat protection and restoration than ever before. Growers can apply for funding for the equipment they need to transition away from peat.

DEFRA’S 2021 peatland action plan is backed by £50 million from the Nature for Climate Fund. I was pleased to secure a commitment to that fund in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. Work has been taking place on projects such as the great north bog and at Rookhope in the North Pennines, which I visited on a bitterly cold, windy day back in 2020 with the local MP, my right hon. Friend Mr Holden. Perhaps even more significant than that commitment is the fact that the farm support under England’s new environmental land management schemes embraces peatland restoration, with the potential for a major long-term flow of funding for this vital task stretching into the future.

Peat not only plays a vital environmental role in our distinctive island habitat, but is part of Britain’s identity, history and culture. Landscape ecological planner Jennifer Dowdell described it as

“a grand encyclopaedia, a storehouse of pollen that can help us understand our ecological history and the changing climate”.

Peat’s miraculous capacity to preserve organic material has meant that it can offer up evidence of the gruesome practices of our ancestors, when so-called bog bodies are discovered thousands of years after these men and women met a grisly end. Seamus Heaney was just one of several poets and writers to reflect on the deep rich peatland earth of these islands.

Removing peat from amateur gardening gives the House the opportunity to recognise the value of that cultural and ecological heritage; to take active and practical steps to protect and restore precious natural habitats; and to take us closer to our goal of reaching net zero and preventing disastrous climate change. I commend this Bill to the House.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 1:25, 16 April 2024

I do not object to the right of my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers to bring in the Bill, but I put it on record that it will not go unopposed. Much of the content of the Bill that she described seems disproportionate, not based on science or fact and another exercise in gesture politics. This should be remembered as another day when the banners seem to want to get out there to destroy other people’s legitimate activities.

I put in a plea on behalf of amateur and professional horticulturalists. Those who have been to plant centres over the past year or so will have noticed that the move to peat-free products has resulted in the quality of those products declining significantly. Plant longevity has declined, because they do not have the natural water retention in their pots that is provided by peat, and it cannot be replaced by peat substitutes. The consequence is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for our domestic horticultural industry to cope with the pressures to reduce peat consumption.

By contrast, almost all our products coming through garden centres and being planted out in gardens and flower boxes across the country come from the Netherlands. What is the Netherlands doing about peat? The latest figures that I have been able to ascertain show that in 2020, the Netherlands imported 2,156,000,000 kg of peat. Some 44.5% of that came from Germany, 9.5% from Estonia, 9.2% from Latvia, 7% or so from Lithuania and 5% from Belgium. What happened to that peat? It was then put with plants that were exported to countries such as the United Kingdom, thereby creating an unfair advantage compared with our homegrown industries.

My right hon. Friend seems to want to go beyond the voluntary approach and to ban professional horticulturalists in this country from using peat in the production of plants, thereby facilitating even greater unfair competition from the Dutch. What proportion of peat is used in horticulture? It is a very small proportion. I am told that about 95% of the peat consumed in the world is used for peat fires, is put into domestic boilers and mega-incinerators or is a substitute for coal or even natural gas. I concede that that use of peat is extremely dirty, but why are we concentrating on just one particular niche industry in our country—horticulture—and ignoring the much larger problem of the burning of peat for fuel? This morning, I looked up whether it would be possible to buy peat for fuel in this country and found a company offering to provide me with a pallet of 30 25 kg bags of peat for £235. If we can buy peat for fuel, why are we trying to concentrate on banning peat in horticulture, where there is no real substitute?

Some people talk about coir as being a substitute, but the production of coir is carried out mainly in the far east, particularly in Sri Lanka. That coir has to be washed and desalted before it can be prepared for horticultural use, and it then has to be transported halfway across the world. That is not an ecologically friendly way of producing a peat substitute.

The noble Lord Benyon, who deals with these issues in the other place, was spot on when, in a debate last year, in answer to a question from Baroness Humphreys, who was concerned about the lack of a level playing field for EU imports, he said:

“The noble Baroness asks a very important question. We could act unilaterally, which would result in the export of jobs, skills and benefit to our economy to countries which are not bringing in measures as rigorous as we are. We want to ensure that we are operating this in the same way as we buy timber, where we recognise the impact we are having globally as well as nationally. We are seeing a massive reduction in the use of peat, and we want to see it end. We have set forth a clear timetable for that to happen. The target of 2026, with certain exemptions, will mean that there will be a tiny amount left which will continue to be used. That will maintain some key areas of our food security, such as mushroom production.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 May 2023;
Vol. 829, c. 1664.]

He could have added blueberry production. Peat is very acidic, Mr Deputy Speaker, and if you try growing blueberries in non-acidic soil, you will find that they die quickly.

The noble Lord Benyon went on to say, in answer to Lord Curry of Kirkharle, that

“in every policy area, there is an unintended consequence unless we fully consider it. In producing alternative media, there is sometimes a cost to the environment. If we are buying coir from abroad, what impact is that having on some very vulnerable parts of the world? There are many other growing media with which we have to ensure that, in our determination to protect our remaining peatlands, we are not exporting the problem and causing problems further afield. It is a very difficult issue, as the noble Lord rightly raises, and I assure him that we are all across this subject.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 May 2023;
Vol. 829, c. 1665.]

I am concerned that we will not be all across the subject if the Bill, as proposed by my right hon. Friend, goes through unopposed. We need to ensure that any legislation on peat is balanced and proportionate and takes into proper account the needs of our home-grown horticultural industry.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Theresa Villiers, Selaine Saxby, Chris Grayling, Miss Sarah Dines, Robin Millar, Andrew Selous, Dr Thérèse Coffey, Tim Loughton, Tracey Crouch, Sally-Ann Hart, Trudy Harrison and Siobhan Baillie present the Bill.

Theresa Villiers accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 199).