The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) was told that it needs to “pull its finger out” in relation to dealing with the ongoing peat issues that are impacting the horticulture sector.

Minister of State at DAFM, Pippa Hackett, was taken to task this morning (Wednesday, June 15) in the Dáil on delays to the introduction of peat alternatives for the sector here, as well as the ongoing importation of peat from other countries.

Approximately 60% of the value of Irish horticulture is dependent on peat as a growth medium with the mushroom, amenity, and soft-fruit sectors being most reliant.

But a series of High Court decisions, which determined that large-scale peat harvesting requires planning permission and licensing by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have made sourcing peat a significant challenge for Irish companies.

Sinn Féin TD, Martin Browne, questioned how, as a ‘green’ politician, Minister Hackett could stand over the state that the sector is in, and the reliance on imports of such an essential ingredient.

In some instances, peat is coming into the country from more than 3,000 miles away, he said.

But, he warned, the sector is at risk now because the smaller operators cannot afford to import peat.

“For the bigger operators, the price of importing peat has gone up by 22% from last year. The department needs to pull its finger out,” he said.

Deputy Browne criticised what he described as the ignoring of the final report of a working group, which was established to look at the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry “despite many sensible recommendations being set out in the report”.

“The possibility of developing primary legislation to resolve the dual issues of the planning and harvesting of peat for horticultural purposes has been effectively dismissed, despite the working group’s recommendations to do so. Instead, guidance on the regulation of peat extraction in Ireland was to be provided,” Deputy Browne said.

The deputy said that research into peat alternatives is all well and good, but is of limited benefit to the sector when a staple ingredient is missing and those alternatives have not yet been provided.

Horticulture – significant statistics:

  • The Irish horticulture sector had a a farmgate value of almost €521 million in 2021;
  • The horticultural sector is the fourth largest in Irish agriculture in terms of output value;
  • An estimated 17,600 people are employed in the sector between primary level and value added downstream.

Responding to Deputy Browne, Minister Hackett acknowledged the importance of the horticulture sector to Ireland and stated that a series of actions have been put in place to alleviate the difficulties being faced by horticultural growers dependent on peat as a growing medium.

“These actions were developed to address the short-term issue of peat supply, the medium-term issue of future access to peat, and the longer-term issue of replacement with alternatives,” she said.

“The ultimate ambition is to support the horticulture industry, the people employed and the many families that depend on this important sector,” she said.

“Perhaps there is some engagement we should have with those exporters to ask them to maybe not export and keep it in this country to secure the horticulture sector here,” she said.

In sourcing alternatives to peat, she explained:

“The DAFM is funding two sustainability research projects through the EU producer organisation, scheme for fruit and vegetables.

“The first project is looking at spent mushroom substrate and how this could be used as a peat replacement material within the wider horticulture sector.

“The second project is investigating the sustainable replacement of peat in mushroom casing material. This support is being reflected in ongoing shelf and house trials on peat alternatives, and good progress is being reported by industry,” she said.

Peat is a finite resource and there is an acknowledgement of the need to transition to more sustainable growing media, the minister added.

According to her, most amenity horticulture growers are now using reduced peat levels in growing substrate, where the peat is blended with material such as bark fibre at levels of between 10% and 30%.

“I welcome the general agreement across the horticulture industry that the use of peat should be phased out by 2030 or by 2035 at the very latest, provided alternative materials are available. The phasing out of the use of peat by 2030 would align with other climate commitments the government has made,” she said.

But she said there is a recognition that a very limited volume of peat may be required for a period in certain sectors, in particular, professional horticulture, until alternatives become available that are affordable and sustainable and meet quality, environmental and productivity requirements for the horticulture sector.