Companies could soon close unless way is cleared for limited peat extraction - claim

‘If no other action happens we will have mushroom companies in Monaghan closing down in three to six months,’ says senator

A long anticipated report from a Working Group on the Use of Peat Moss in the Horticultural Industry was published on Monday. Photograph: iStock

A long anticipated report from a Working Group on the Use of Peat Moss in the Horticultural Industry was published on Monday. Photograph: iStock

 

Proposed solutions to a worsening peat supply crisis in the horticultural sector have been met with claims that companies could soon begin closing unless the way is cleared for limited extraction.

A High Court ruling rendered Irish peat extraction unviable for domestic producers including mushroom and fruit growers who have begun importing supplies instead.

In 2019 the court held that a dual consenting system for large-scale peat extraction was required, and that such sites could not be exempt under planning laws. For sites over 30 hectares planning permission is needed, including an environmental impact assessment.

On Monday, a long anticipated report from a Working Group on the Use of Peat Moss in the Horticultural Industry, established to address the ongoing problems, was published alongside an action plan to implement its findings. These have been dismissed by critics.

IFA horticulture chairman Paul Brophy said the action plan was extremely disappointing for growers and claimed it did not conform with the report’s recommendations.

“The plan will do nothing other than lead to the demise of the sector. It doesn’t indicate how the current producers of the key raw material can become fully compliant and continue to service the industry needs. IFA is calling for it to be scrapped and re-evaluated immediately.”

Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty said “if no other action happens we will have mushroom companies in Monaghan closing down in three to six months”. She recently introduced a Bill allowing for limited peat extraction, supported by Fianna Fáil, Labour and Independents in the Seanad.

The Government has been accused of “ignoring” recommendations contained in the report, including that primary legislation be introduced to ease planning obstacles.

The working group was set up in 2020 by Minister for State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan and comprised Government representatives, members of the industry and environmental NGOs.

Having examined the problems around peat extraction and supply it delivered 15 recommendations including a consensus that while peat should be phased out by 2035 at the latest, it would still be needed in the short term in a number of sectors.

It suggested exploring exempt development provisions under the planning code for immediate solutions including the potential to harvest from already worked bogs of less than 30 hectares in size where drainage commenced prior to January, 2002.

The report noted that supplies for 2022 should be available in sufficient quantities from existing “ecologically destroyed” bogs that have been prepared for harvesting but currently lying fallow.

Other recommendations included a study of biomass quantities available in Ireland; increased research on potential alternatives to peat; the creation of a Growing Media Centre of Excellence; and a limit on peat imports to “special circumstances”.

The horticulture sector was valued at almost €469 million in 2020 and accounts for 17,600 direct and indirect jobs. Approximately 60 per cent of produce is dependent on peat until viable alternative materials can be introduced. According to the sector, at least 40,000 tonnes of peat have been imported since September.

In line with the publication of the working group report, the Department of Agriculture announced a series of actions including the commissioning of an independent expert to assess current peat stocks across all suppliers including Bord na Móna.

Planning expertise will be provided to those who wish to extract peat in compliance with regulations, while research will be undertaken to deliver alternatives to peat.

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said the various Government departments involved in the process are aware of a lack of simple solutions but are committed to “exploring every opportunity to alleviate the current difficulties”.

The Government has said “some level” of imports could not be ruled out but that there is a regulatory pathway to legally compliant extraction. The fastest route for the domestic industry, it said, appears to be small-scale extraction on previously drained bogs of less than 30 hectares in size.

Responding to the report, Ms Doherty said a legislative remedy was required for limited extraction on a small scale, and as a temporary measure to support the sector.

Growing Media Ireland (GMI), the sector’s representative group, said it was “outraged at the response” by Government to the working group report. Chairman John Neenan said it was a “slap in the face” for all including department representatives, growers and industry experts.

GMI accused the Government of ignoring key recommendations in the report. One of those is that primary legislation be drafted to simplify extraction planning by amending the current “dual consent system” to a “single consent system” as used elsewhere in Europe.

“The existing legal framework is unworkable and will not deliver horticultural peat in the short to medium term for Irish growers and producers,” Mr Neenan said.