For peat's sake

peat mines.jpg

2500 years ago Plato wrote about ancient Greece many years before: “... the earth has fallen away all round and sunk out of sight. The consequence is, that in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.”

At a remarkable mid-June gathering at Morvern in the West Highlands I read the above excerpt from Plato, who was describing Greece before farmers totally screwed it up.  The theme of the conference was ‘Soil Matters’ and it brought together leading soil scientists, artists, musicians, government and NFU officials, land managers and others with an interest in soil and sustainability. It was hosted by the Andrew Raven Trust, a trust established in memory of his profound influence on Scottish land management and environmental issues.  Because we were in the Highlands the role of peat in climate change and sustainability was a topic.  Peat has a deep resonance with the spirit of Scotland - I’m not talking about whisky here but about peat bogs. 

The Scottish landscape has seen some hard times - the Clearances led to populated areas seeing the longstanding human residents sent off to Glasgow or America or Australia, to be replaced by deer and sheep.  Now the Scots are recreating the marvellous environment that reflects the levels of rainfall that typify the region and rebuilding rural populations living in harmony with this unique environment.  A surprising number of the new migrants are from England.

Misguided post-war policy gave indiscriminate tax incentives to forestry. Trees were inappropriately planted on peatlands, the bogs dried out, the ecosystem collapsed.  Now there are active peat bog restoration projects all over Scotland and the benefits to environment and climate are inestimable.  A peat bog can compete with a woodland in the amount of carbon dioxide it takes out of the air and stores permanently in the depths of the earth.  Scotland’s peat bogs are making a huge contribution to mitigating climate change and we still don’t pay them a penny for doing it.  With carbon pricing on the horizon that could change.  If the carbon price is £50/tonne CO2 then an undisturbed peat bog could earn its owner £2-300 per hectare per year.  That’s more than you could make by cutting the peat for fuel or compost.

Peter Melchett, the late Policy Director of the Soil Association, dreamed of the day when peat use was phased out completely from organic farming.  A 2010 Government deadline for removing peat from horticulture was quietly extended to 2020 and now neither Defra nor the EU have any concrete plans to phase out peat use - the pressure from horticulture is too strong - tomato and vegetable growers are a powerful lobby.


So, while the Scots are diligently restoring peat bogs the rest of the world is still digging it up to save microscopic amounts of money.  We deserve to die if we can’t do anything about this insanity.  Vast peat bog areas of Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Canada are being mined on an industrial scale to supply vegetable growers. There have been attempts to phase peat out of organic and conventional production. ‘Peatless peat’: compost blends of coir, composted shredded bark, biochar and green waste perform just as effectively but cost a tiny bit more. They have a vastly lower carbon footprint.  The organic movement sees itself as superior to other growers and farmers but the use of peat is one area where we must hang our heads in shame.  Every principle of sustainability is contradicted by the use of peat;: it takes tens of centuries to replace; it turns into carbon dioxide within a year or two of being used; and it destroys biodiverse habitats. Growers feel under tremendous pressure from supermarkets to cut costs in any way possible and peat is cheap.

Alternatives that don’t devastate the environment can do the job just as well, they just cost 1/2 a penny more than peat for a seedling plant.  A tomato plant can produce 50 tomatoes, so that’s 1/100 of a penny that is saved by using peat to grow tomatoes.  Screw the planet, let’s save a penny per 100 organic tomatoes.

It is time for the organic movement to revisit its founding principles, look to the Scottish example and drive a worldwide movement to restore peat wetlands and make peat use extinct before peat use makes us extinct.

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In June I was invited to give the keynote speech at the Sustainable Foods Summit in Amsterdam. The conference programme was so advanced it made me blink in disbelief - here were a bunch of corporate executives and sustainability managers from the world's leading corporations all working to create real standards of sustainable growth and methods of measurement in order to comply with their corporate statements of principle. Stalwarts like Clearspring and Whole Foods were there, but the general tone was very mainstream. I spoke about taking an ethical brand mainstream later in the day but for my keynote I thought I'd give it to them with both barrels. Here’s my speech:

"Today I would like to take for my text the New Testament, Chapter 6: 1-8, the Book of Revelation of St. John the Evangelist (I'd give anything for a picture of the audience's horrified faces as they prepared for the worst). You may recall it: it's where Jesus opens the sealed scrolls and summons forth the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - War, Plague, Famine and their faithful follower, Death.To understand sustainability we must recognise that the world's economy is still governed by legacy industries who have a massive vested interest in those 4 horsemen. Without them, or the fear of them, their shareholder value would collapse.War enjoys annual capital expenditure of $1.5 trillion. with the US leading the field, devoting 5% of GDP to military spending. As you'd expect with any capital expenditure, the return on investment is many times the value of the outlay - the cost of death and destruction of property in target nations is massive. Of course the at-home social damage is pretty high too as soldiers return home with attitudes to violence that lead to high domestic cost due to healthcare, suicides, crime and psychological problems.Plague enjoys good returns, too. The Avian Flu and Swine Flu panics exposed Big Pharma’s desperate quest for new disease threats. The side effects of medical intervention create a huge subsidiary industry and new diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease and high cholesterol create an opportunities for profit. Death from medical errors in the US run at 200,000 a year, while correct intervention claims many more.Famine is perhaps most relevant to this conference. By destroying the natural fertility of the Earth with chemical fertilisers and killing off biodiversity with pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, GMOs and antibiotics agribusiness has created a global dependency on their chemicals to produce our food. 'Feed the world' is their mantra as they progressively starve the world. Now, except for organic farming, we are hooked on the drugs they sell to keep degraded land in production.We have to kick these bad habits but they are entrenched in our socioeconomic system and their proprietors will not give up without a fightSo how can sustainability triumph? It must be in all arenas, we must bring peace and prosperity, to all. It can be done, because things have changed.How have things changed?Debt - Wars, drugs and agribusiness have bankrupted our economies. First rule of a parasite is: don't kill the host. If American taxpayers had to pay for war, medicine and farm subsidies they would never have happened. Instead the Chinese, and Arabs loaned the US the money so they could continue to buy cheap consumer goods and oil. Now that the debt is dragging down our economy we wrongly blame the bankers. The rot started because our governments subsidised war/drug/ag with borrowed money because they were too cowardly to pay for it out of increased taxation.Transparency - the days of the smoke-filled room where a handful of powerful men decide the fate of the rest of us is ending. We know what’s going on.There is no future if there is not a sustainable future. A handful of companies worldwide thrive on war, sickness and a famine. Our governments bow to them. Monsanto's control of the USDA is the most obvious but it's the same everywhere, from the EU to India to Africa and Latin America.It is undeniable that peace brings more prosperity than war and avoids the burden of debtThat the creation of health is better value than the treatment of diseaseThat organic and sustainable farming gives better and more reliable yields than unsustainable petrochemical dependencyWe're right - we know we're right - they know we're right.But they won't give up without a fightIn Britain our new prime minister speaks about The Big Society - people doing it for themselves. The top down model is disintegrating everywhere. When people start doing it for themselves then different choices will be made. Companies that are ready for this seismic change will prosper. There can only be on future and by definition it must be sustainable.