Halting peat harvesting in Ireland and importing it from elsewhere for the horticultural sector is “a case of cutting off our environmental noses to spite our face” according to senator Robbie Gallagher.

Speaking in the Seanad this week, Gallagher said that the mushroom sector, the largest horticultural sector in Ireland, is “crucial to the economy”.

However, the industry “now faces a significant and, in my opinion, unneeded challenge at a time when it faces the consequences of both Brexit and Covid”.

Importing peat ‘at a huge cost’

“The industry is heavily reliant on high grade peat and there is currently no viable alternative to horticultural peat,” the Monaghan senator said.

“If peat is not available here in Ireland, the mushroom industry will be forced to import it from the Baltic states or from northern Europe at a huge cost both in financial terms to the industry and in the form of the higher carbon footprint of transporting that peat into the country.

“What sense is there in damaging a successful local industry for little or no environmental gain? It seems to be a case of cutting off our environmental noses to spite our face.”

He has urged Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Pippa Hackett to ensure the resumption of the harvesting of horticultural peat for the mushroom industry to avoid a shortage this year, as well as measures to financially incentivise the use of spent mushroom compost.

“We need a fair and efficient system which can allow horticultural peat harvesting to continue while the environmental alternatives to peat are researched and scaled up,” the senator said.

“All the sector is looking for is a just transition structure. The door is not closed to this but the sector needs time to assess the environmental, economic and employment benefits of such a measure.”

Horticultural industry should be ‘completely overhauled’

Speaking on the climate bill in the Seanad recently, senator Eugene Murphy said he would like the horticultural industry to be “completely overhauled”.

“In every supermarket I go into, I see blueberries from Morocco, Peru, Spain and Portugal – yet they grow very well on Bord na Móna lands or bog soil,” he claimed.

“I know that for some time, Bord na Móna in Co. Kildare had a very successful project.

“Maybe there might be an issue with how effective it would be financially in terms of diversification for some farmers, but would it not be great if we compensated or grant-aided farmers or even had a pilot scheme to persuade some farmers to go into the production of blueberries?

“We are importing quite a lot of potatoes, which is shocking. We have a great climate for producing potatoes yet we are importing them.

“When all this stuff is coming from all over the world in cargo planes and ships, it is not helping to keep emissions down.”

‘We all know that peat harvesting will stop’

Minister Hackett has said that her department is “actively looking” at alternatives to peat and has funded two research projects on this to date, and has recently sought further projects to be conducted in its latest research call for 2021.

“There is a strong understanding in the mushroom sector and the wider horticulture sector that in the future, peat will not play a major role in their production but we need that just transition,” she said.

“We need to be able to support the sector and move to that place where it is not so reliant on peat.

“Within the mushroom sector, the research has looked at spent mushroom casings, blending that with other substrates, reducing the amount of peat in casing and looking at possibilities such as coir.

“This is from coconut husk and would have to be imported but the environmental damage would have to be measured up.

“We could look at wood fibre while biochar is another option. The research needs to be done but at the end of the day, we all know that peat harvesting will stop.”