Using peat moss may help your garden retain water, but it also intensifies climate change. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Legal and Policy Options to Ban or Limit the Use of Horticultural Peat Moss in British Columbia, a new ELC submission prepared on behalf of the Peatlands Protection Society, aims to start those discussions about alternatives and it calls on Canadian governments to protect peatlands.
“The focus of our organization is to raise awareness of the importance of peatlands in the fight to reduce climate change,” says Eliza Olson, Peatlands Protection Society. “I often explain the challenge of raising awareness of peatlands, especially in BC, like the Lilliputians of nature fighting to gain recognition against the giants of nature, our trees.”
Peatlands help regulate water levels in times of drought and flooding. They aid in water purification and provide critical habitat for many species. In their natural state, peatlands are natural carbon sinks that help combat climate change. They store twice as much land-based carbon as all the world’s forests combined while only covering 3% of the world’s land surface.
When peatlands are drained, cut and sold for heating, energy and garden compost, they release huge amounts of greenhouse gases. And peatlands are not easily renewable – many peat deposits have been accumulating since the last ice-age glacial retreat over 8,000 years ago.
Canada is home to some of the largest peatlands globally and is an active player in the peat mining industry. In Canada, peatlands make up approximately 13% of country’s surface area, although most commercial peat harvest occurs in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick. Most of Canadian peat is exported to US (87%) for golf course construction, mixed fertilizers, mushroom culture, seed inoculants, a filtration medium for waterborne contaminants, and oil absorbent.
We may not harvest peat in BC, but we buy it. As peat contains up to 20 times its weight in water, it’s attractive to gardeners and golf courses. But while peat is good for seedlings and improves drainage, it’s not actually effective as a soil amendment as its nutrient value is low. Better alternatives include natural compost, bark, wood fibre, and worm castings.
The ELC submission makes a series of recommendations, including a call on BC to ban the sale of horticultural peat moss, implementing policies to stop government procurement of horticultural peat, encouraging local governments to introduce bylaws similar to those banning single-use plastic bags, and supporting a certification program for garden retailers.
Other jurisdictions around the world, such as the UK, are moving to ban the sale of peat compost to gardeners. Implementing a full ban in BC may be more challenging as most Canadian peat is exported and not retailed in Canada. Even if a full ban is not possible, it’s important to raise awareness about the significant environmental impact of mining peat and for the public to dive into conversations about the alternatives.
“We hope to share this report with organizations all across Canada who are fighting to save their endangered peatlands. It’s an ambitious goal but when I was working to save Burns Bog I was told it was a dream. But four levels of government came together in an historical act to save 5,000-plus acres of Burns Bog,” says Eliza. As food security concerns, rising prices at the grocery store, and interruptions to supply chains are encouraging many a gardener to grow their own, the ELC submission aims to also encourage conversations so we can continue to cultivate good gardens without hurting the planet.
I was surprised to learn that peatlands store nearly 1/3 of all land-based carbon – and that Canada is home to such a large percentage of this invaluable ecosystem. When peatlands are disturbed for any variety of reasons, including peat harvest, the stored carbon is released. The best action people can take on an individual level is to opt out of peat-based products and opt for alternative growing media like wood fiber, leaf mold, and compost.