Beyond peat’s basic functions, its role at your greenhouse operation and the fact that it’s sourced from Canada and parts of the United States, how much do you know about the main ingredient in North America’s growing mixes?
Are you aware of the criticisms the peat industry has drawn over the last two decadesâ€“or, as many peat producers would characterize them, the misconceptions their critics have? According to these companies, the misconceptions are numerous, from the number of acres of Canadian peatlands harvested to the speed at which peat regenerates.
But now, the peat industry is beginning to speak up and share its story with those involved in greenhouse floriculture.
Peatland restoration, for example, is one industry component that shines a light on the efforts of peat producers. But even some producers admit they haven’t done a good enough job promoting their restoration work. The criticisms, after all, seem to keep coming.
“The peat industry has given the impression that bog restoration is as easy as putting back a growth layer on the harvested bog,” says Roelof Drost, Jiffy International’s director of marketing. “Bog restoration is not like planting a new tree, waiting 60 years and, voila, another tree is ready to be cut. Bog restoration is difficult and requires a lot of work and patience. There have been successes, and there have been failures. But it is our industry’s responsibility to better explain what is being done to prevent these misconceptions.”
According to Line Rochefort, the senior chair of the Industrial Research Chair in Peatland Management at UniversitÃ© Laval in Quebec, Canadian peat producers began to explore bog restoration at a 1991 industry meeting. At the time, the European peat industry was beginning to draw criticism for its use of peat as a local energy source.
The primary reason European peat has been harvested over the last centuries, Rochefort says, is for fuel. But several countries have managed their peatlands so poorly that they’re no longer functional as ecosystems. England, for example, is left with about 2 percent of its original peatlands.
“The biggest criticisms of peat globally were coming from England,” says Rochefort, who has guided peat producers on responsible peatland management and restoration since 1992. “Its peatlands are in a completely different state than Canada’s.”
Holland, Ireland and Russia are three other countries that harvest peat primarily for fuel. The rate at which those countries harvest their peatlands does not, however, compare to the rate at which Canada harvests. Plus, Rochefort says no restoration plans were in place in those countries while producers were rapidly harvesting for fuel.
Still, peat producers firmly believe the Canadian peat industry is drawing criticism for the actions of European producers over the years.
“I think many peat moss critics are misinformed about peat moss and harvesting activities,” says Hugh Poole, Fafard’s director of technical services. “Many of the criticisms have come from European experiences and the use of peat as a fuel or energy source, which is not applicable to North America. Most of my experiences have been in New Brunswick, where Fafard has been harvesting peat since the 1940s and where we closed our first and oldest bog a few years ago.”
“Because bogs can be harvested for 25 to 40 years, few bogs have needed restoration to date. Our Shippagan, New Brunswick, bog is being restored in an exciting consortium of university, provincial, non-profit organizations “
Small Environmental Impact
In addition to a peatland’s harvesting lifespan, the percentage of Canadian peatlands harvested for horticultural purposes today is small: less than 0.02 percent. In all, 90 percent of Canada’s peatlands are still in their natural states, and the overwhelming majority of those impacted in Canada have been drained for agriculture.
“Individuals have to understand our impact. It’s so marginal compared to what is available out there,” says Jacques Gagnon, Premier Tech Horticulture’s resource management supervisor. “Even though the impact is small, we take it into account and are acting responsibly.”
Clarence Breau, vice president for Sun Gro Horticulture’s east region, agrees and points to collaboration between the Canadian peat industry and the Canadian government as yet another reminder responsible peatland management is taking place.
“The Canadian government has a very significant role in our work,” Breau says. “First, before you can get onto a new bog, you have to go through an environmental assessment. You have to have a plan of development and restoration for the new bog in place. At the same time, you’re responsible for restoring the bog you’re done harvesting.
The Carbon Argument
Another criticism the Canadian peat industry has drawn recently, particularly from the Sustainable Sites Initiative, is harvesting peat increases the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Rochefort, however, says that because harvested peatlands are being restored, they ultimately once again become functioning ecosystems that sequester carbon. In other words, restored peatlands will essentially serve the same ecosystemic functions as untouched peatlands.
In addition, the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association, which represents the different peat producers, indicates that the combustion of peat as a fuel releases about three times the amount of carbon as is released from drained peatlands. So horticultural peat harvesting, unlike European peat harvesting for fuel, does not have the same greenhouse gas emission impact.
“It appears the argument equating peat moss to significant CO2 (carbon dioxide) evolution is weighted toward peat as a fuel source,” Poole says. “In other words, it converts all of the organic carbon to CO2 via complete oxidation or combustion similar to coal, petroleum or wood. However, peat is not totally consumed in a flash when used in horticulture. As a soil component, peat plays an active role in the carbon cycle as a food source for plants and the microbial activity in the soil.
“True, after many cycles, the peat is ultimately converted into CO2 and water, but only after continuing the cycle of life. Peat is a precious environmental resource and very important to the horticultural industry.”