Deep, lowland peat soils, if drained, can prove fertile for arable cropping but as doing so releases many tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere as the peat gradually wastes away, should we be growing food on these soils at all?
The Government has published its new 25 year Environment Plan – ‘A Green Future’. Find it for yourself here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan
It is actually very easy to read and avoids technical jargon, explaining in clear reasoned terms what the government intends to do and why. Whatever the colour of your politics it is hard not to like what you read. It is particularly heartening to see lowland peatland restoration promoted and validated in spite of the agricultural importance of fenland and lowland vales in England. I will come back to this in a moment.
Meanwhile, if all 151 pages are a lot to take in at one sitting there is an At a Glance Summary document of the key policies which is much easier to digest. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan/25-year-environment-plan-our-targets-at-a-glance However I would urge you to open the full plan document and have a skim over it, dipping in to sections that captivate your interest.
It mentions marine plastics for example, farming and land management policies, green spaces for communities, helping primary schools to improve school grounds and get children out in contact with nature more. If your passion like mine is for soil health and protecting peatlands then the intention to phase out horticultural use of peat can’t come soon enough. There is stuff on waste reduction and Natural Capital (hurrah for that); policies on fisheries and habitat creation are described; a proposition to increase woodland cover to 12% and lots of talk about climate change mitigation, natural flood management, resilience, Clean Growth, whatever that is and lots more. Healthy cynicism aside there is much to applaud.
Anyway, back to peatlands, here is what is says on ‘Improving soil health and restoring and protecting our peatlands’:
“While peatlands are our largest terrestrial carbon store, drained peatlands release their carbon, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Organic or peat soils make up 11% of England’s total land area, over 70% of which are drained or in poor condition. Although our drained lowland peatland makes up only a small proportion of the agricultural land in England, these are among our most fertile soils and play an important part in the nation’s food supply. Conventional agricultural production using current techniques on drained peatland is, however, inherently unsustainable.”
While one could argue that the hot topic of upland moorland management (including the much debated impacts of driven grouse shooting on upland catchments and ecosystems) has been conveniently left out of the plan, I have to welcome the way that the essential conflict of cultivating lowland peat soils for food production (or indeed fibre or biomass) has been laid open for debate head on.
Seriously, do delve in and have a look for yourself. This plan is not just for civil servants to put on their shelf but has some real relevance in the way that ordinary people might participate in making things happen. Whether it be pledging not to use single use plastics (drinking straws, carrier bags, drinking cups), getting involved in rejuvenating a local greenspace, petitioning your garden centre to ditch peat-based composts or supporting the campaigns to reduce pesticides like neonicotinoids – there is sure to be something you can get personally involved in with.