Irish companies which supply 60% of the mushrooms sold in UK supermarkets, along with plant nurseries, have called for peat harvesting to resume in Ireland, rather than having to import peat, which is a vital ingredient for their businesses.
Bord Na Móna’s last full peat harvest took place in 2018, followed by a partial harvest in 2019 and a full suspension of harvesting operations in 2020.
Peat harvesting was halted by a 2019 High Court ruling that commercial peat extraction without planning permission is unauthorised, and by a recent Supreme Court judgment on the substitute consent mechanism within the planning system.
The Government’s focus has now moved to bog rehabilitation and restoration, in order to tackle climate and biodiversity challenges, alongside a just transition process for peat workers in the Midlands.
Meanwhile, a working group is being established by minister of state Malcolm Noonan to examine the future role of peat and the use of peat alternatives in the horticulture sector.
He has said the working group will consider issues such as reducing and ultimately eliminating use of peat moss in the amateur gardening sector, in order to leave what remains for the industry sector.
This would buy time to develop alternatives, enable food security, and provide industry surety, and eliminate use of peat moss in the horticultural industry.
He said alternatives to peat moss, such as bark, wood fibre, coir, biosolids, bracken and green compost, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, and horticultural clay will be investigated, along with new methods such as paludiculture and sphagnum farming.
However, Growing Media Ireland (GMI), which represents horticultural peat producers (but not Bord na Móna) has revealed plans to go to the Environmental Protection Agency for a licence to produce horticultural peat.
GMI chairman John Neenan told a recent Oireachtas committee on agriculture, food and the marine debate that its legal advice is that the minister for housing, local government and heritage can exempt peat from the planning process, under European and Irish law.
He envisages GMI members responsibly harvesting peat under the control of the EPA.
“We feel that this is the only legal avenue open to get harvesting in 2021, and have sufficient supplies for all the industries we are talking about.”
These industries were given the opportunity to make their case for how they source peat or alternative raw materials, at the recent agriculture committee debate, where committee chairman, Tipperary Fianna Fail TD Jackie Cahill, said importing alternative products “makes absolutely no sense”.
The threatened loss of “deep-dug” peat is an “immediate problem” for the mushroom industry, said Mel O’Rourke of CMP, Ireland’s largest mushroom producer organisation, representing 90% of Irish mushroom production and growers.
It supplies about 33% of the UK mushroom market, and other Irish-owned companies, producing in the UK, supply another 25% to 30%.
Mr O’Rourke told the committee a 2in layer of peat casing is put on a mushroom bed, with 20cm of compost underneath. But the peat “is the vital part for the mushrooms to fruit”.
“I do not believe any alternatives are readily available,” said Mr O’Rourke.
Patrick Gleeson of the Kildare Growers Group said the plant nursery industry has used 0.5% of the peat harvested.
He said use of stagnant peat as a bulk constituent of growing medium helped to revolutionise growing of hardy plants in containers.
Within 40km of Tullamore, Co Offaly, there are 25 nurseries employing about 250 workers, with an annual output of over €15m.
“There are currently no other abundant materials that have suitable properties at an affordable cost.
“Selecting any other material currently requires a grower to compromise in terms of crop risk, where aspects of crop husbandry, yield and quality are potentially impacted, and currently under-researched.”
One alternative is coir coming from 10,000km away in Sri Lanka and India, suitable for some products at a reduced input.
Compost is being imported from Scotland at substantially higher cost than local product, said Kieran Dunne of the Kildare Growers Group.
He said green waste is not suitable for propagating vegetable transplants or any other food product, because there are heavy metals in it.
Mr Dunne warned the price of “professional” horticultural compost will double, from between €37 and €40 per metre to between €70 and €80 in Leinster, and up to €120 in Cork, if Irish peat is not available.
“We have to make sure that the mushroom and horticultural industries here survive and thrive, and I believe they will”, said Environment Minister Eamon Ryan in the Dáil last week, when rural TDs said sustainable green strategies are causing increased imports.
“We will have to look at a variety of different solutions, including the use of imported products, and look for new substitutes,” said the minister.
“How does any of this fit in with a sustainable green strategy, when imports are increasing along with all of the emissions that go with that?” said Tipperary Sinn Fein TD Martin Browne, citing the examples of imports of wood pellets from Australia, and of peat from mainland Europe.
He asked why “green” restrictions are imposed on Irish industries before proper thought has been given to filling the gap which is left, and the impact these decisions will have on Irish businesses.
Australia exported about 100,000 tonnes of wood pellets in 2020, mostly to the Netherlands and the UK, but also to Ireland, for generating electricity.
The average price was €130 per tonne.
Laois-Offaly Independent TD Carol Nolan said it makes no sense for peat to be imported.
She said €3.5m worth of peat was imported into this country last year.
Cavan-Monaghan Sinn Fein TD Matt Carthy said: “This is clear evidence of tokenism rather than real environmental action.
“An ideological pursuit by some of the minister’s colleagues to try to eliminate the use of peat for horticultural activities has resulted in a situation where peat is being imported.
“We also face the very real prospect of jobs, such as those in the mushroom sector, being exported.”
Limerick County Independent TD Richard O’Donoghue warned of animal bedding shortages for livestock farmers, due to the €10m straw incorporation measure announced in Budget 2021.
“They were relying on peat for bedding and now, because of the legislation the Government is trying to introduce to require farmers to put the straw back into the ground, additional pressure will be put on them.
Meanwhile, minister of state Malcolm Noonan has appointed Dr Munoo Prasad as chairperson to the working group to examine peat moss in horticulture issues, and indicated the group’s recommendations will be issued within six months.