Last week I sold on a few organically-certified bags of reclaimed peat seed compost that I’d bought from West Riding Organics and received some negative feedback about the use of peat from customers who apparently hadn’t realised that the reclaimed peat I was selling was based on, er, peat. The episode raises some wider issues that are close to the theme of this blog, and has prompted me to think a bit more about them, so I thought I’d give them an airing.
The basic problem is that peat is pretty much the best substrate for seed compost, but you can only get it from the slowly accumulating vegetable detritus of wet moorlands, which are rare and sensitive habitats, and also ones that sequester carbon. So digging it out for gardeners at rates far greater than it’s being deposited isn’t a sustainable practice.
Reclaimed peat is peat that has been eroded out of moorland habitats and washed into lakes and reservoirs, from where the enterprising folks at West Riding Organics filter it out, fiddle about with it a bit and then sell it to the likes of me. The West Riding Organics website states “It must be stressed that this is a result of natural erosion with man playing no part in its formation”, but according to one customer I spoke to views of this kind are ‘weasel words’.
Why? Well, I can’t speak for my customer but one possible problem is that the erosion is only partly ‘natural’, with at least some of it (how much?) resulting from human practices that exacerbate the erosion. Another possible problem is that there’s nowhere near enough natural erosion to satisfy the demand for seedling compost.
Actually, I don’t think the second objection stands up. No, there isn’t enough peat to go around, but if some of it is knocking around on the bottom of a reservoir then there’s a good case for filtering it out and doing something more useful with it. The same argument applies to the recycled chip fat that I use in my van – we can’t fuel the entire global vehicle fleet with chip fat, but that doesn’t mean that a few of us shouldn’t make use of the resource. The first objection is potentially a problem though. On reflection, my view is that it’s still worth making use of the eroded peat – it’s not doing any good where it is, and it can’t be put back. But if it could be shown that the market for reclaimed peat was in some way directly incentivising land management practices that contributed to the erosion of moorland, then I think I’d avoid buying it. I don’t think using reclaimed peat is ethically tainted just because it’s peat, but if its use is directly contributing to moorland erosion then I’d have to accept that it is ethically tainted. And I don’t know whether it is or not – it would be good to find out.
For me, there are three wider issues of interest here encompassing (1) trust (2) farm economics and (3) growing practices. A few brief comments on each in turn.
My customers bought the compost without researching the details because, touchingly, they trusted my ethical integrity as a sustainability-minded grower. I don’t suppose they’ll be making that mistake again, dammit. And I suppose I in turn bought it without researching the details because it’s organically certified, so implicitly I placed my trust in the Soil Association to have researched the details for me. That’s basically what third party ‘ethical’ certification is all about, as when we buy fair trade coffee in the supermarket for a few pence extra and feel like we’re good people. But since my whole ‘small farm future’ schtick is basically about direct relationships of trust between producers and consumers then I’m somewhat hoisted by my own petard on this one. The only thing I’d say in my defence is that I was pretty explicit in my message to customers about the source of the compost, which just goes to show how much people’s trust of individuals can obscure attention to the fine print. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe peat compost will have to go the way of cigarettes, with ‘PEAT COMPOST KILLS WETLANDS AND CAUSES DISEASES OF UNSUSTAINABILITY’ marked in huge letters on the bag. Maybe people will go on buying it anyway, just like cigarettes.
Oh what the hell, I’m going to say two other things in my defence as well, which come under the rubric of the other two wider issues – first farm economics. As a ‘direct producer’ I would love it if I really could produce everything directly. When people visit our holding they often ask, ‘do you save all your own seeds?’ or ‘do you make all your own seed compost?’ In fact, we do try to do a bit of both, but the honest answer is ‘I’d love to but I can’t even earn a living wage spending all my time just growing vegetables’. As I’ve said before on this blog, the economic reality of farming is that fossil energy is cheap and human labour is dear, and this fundamentally distorts the social ecology. Whether it’s possible to farm sustainably at all in the long view of human history is a moot point, but it’s certainly not possible to farm sustainably in contemporary Britain. Which means all of us have to make personal decisions about what we will and won’t do for the sake of our sustainability principles, decisions that are endlessly open to the scrutiny and criticism of others.
And so to the final interesting issue, growing practices. One decision I’ve made is not to import any manures or composts onto my holding…well, er, other than seed compost that is. There are various reasons for that, but the main one is that even supposedly ‘organic’ compost relies directly or indirectly on fossil fuel intensive synthetic nitrogen, and I think we need to experiment with other ways of producing our food. It’s worth bearing in mind that organic growers have to use something like 25 tonnes of soil-building compost per hectare, as compared to something like 250kg of seed compost for the transplants that go into the same area. I think importing the seed compost is a lesser evil. Of course, seed compost doesn’t have to be peat-based, but it pretty much does if you use a soil blocking system for transplants, which I’ve found to be the most effective way of establishing transplants – and effective germination has sustainability implications of its own. Seedling substrates are a big issue for organic growers, because there are very few products available that do a good job without having sustainability implications of one kind or another (coir being the main alternative to peat). If you don’t buy organic it’s pretty likely that there’ll be peat in them thar vegetables, the transplanted ones anyway. What are the solutions? Well, I’m open to suggestions, but everything I can think of involves greater costs, and – if my customer surveys are anything to go by – people think organic veg costs too much already.
1: I ought to have found out a bit more about the erosion processes associated with reclaimed peat, and whether the market for it incentivises poor land management, rather than relying on the Soil Association to do it for me. I’ll invite West Riding Organics to comment on this.
2: it’s a lot easier to be a sustainable domestic gardener than a sustainable commercial grower, and it probably pays better too
3: but if you really want to be a sustainable gardener don’t import compost of any kind. Period. Or much of anything else for that matter.
I’d be interested in comments on this post, or thoughts on other dilemmas of sustainability facing growers and gardeners.