When talking about sustainability in agriculture, the subject of peat moss can stir up a bit of controversy. A quick search online will bring up various viewpoints for and against using peat, adding to the confusion. To better understand this subject, we must look at how peat is harvested and for what purposes, as well as the available alternatives and their impact on the environment.
As farmers, gardeners, and homesteaders, we understand the importance of protecting our natural resources and using only what we need. When it comes to peat harvesting, there are protective policies in place that allow this practice to be done sustainably - and there are ways to use peat in growing practices that maximize the benefits of this important resource while ensuring that it remains abundant.
What is Peat Moss?
Peat Moss is a natural substance that accumulates in layers in vast wetlands worldwide and is created from the breaking down of organic matter from trees, leaves, roots, and other plant materials. Due to the lack of oxygen in these water-saturated environments, this material breaks down slowly over time. The Sphagnum moss that grows on the surface of peatlands spreads slowly and is extremely adaptable and resilient, pushing other vegetation out of the way and sequestering a significant amount of carbon into the peat below.
Peatlands are abundant in the Northern Hemisphere - with Asia and Canada having the highest percentage. Canada alone has approximately 170 million hectares of peatlands, about 14% of the country’s total surface area (1).
What Makes Peat Harvesting Controversial?
Because peatlands develop extremely slowly and effectively sequester carbon, harvesting peat has become a hot topic. Especially in the last few decades, where climate shifts have raised concerns over the amount of carbon released into our atmosphere, these carbon sinks are increasingly important to protect.
When harvesting of peatlands is done without proper protection in place for peat bog renewal, this can be problematic. Furthermore, some countries harvest peat primarily for fuel - which has an even bigger negative impact on the environment as the emissions released from burning peat harm our atmosphere. While peat harvesting for fuel has been widely criticized for its negative environmental impact, these practices are being increasingly regulated, with some countries phasing them out completely as other sustainable fuel sources become more widely available and affordable.
Peatlands as a Sustainable Option
Of the over 400 million hectares of peatlands on earth, only 14% have been disturbed for harvesting, and only 1% of that accounts for horticultural use (2). So, when looking at the total environmental impact of peatland harvesting, horticultural use is a very small percentage of that equation. In fact, peatland harvesting done for horticulture is approached in a different and much more sustainable way to protect this important resource.
Canada, in particular, has very strict guidelines in place to ensure that peatlands are harvested sustainably and do not deplete them. The Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA) ensures that peatlands considered for harvesting are properly assessed before any ground is broken. Once assessed, harvesting can take several weeks as it depends on the weather patterns - if rain is in the forecast, harvesting will be delayed as these conditions will cause the peat moss harvester to compact the soil, further damaging the delicate ecosystem of the bogs.
Every year, over 70 million tons of peat are naturally created in Canadian bogs - and of that, only 1.3 million tons are harvested (3). Because Canada accounts for 95% of the peat moss used in US horticulture and agriculture, this ratio is rather sustainable. It does not have a significant impact on the depletion of this natural resource.
Exploring the Alternatives to Peat
When considering peat moss strictly as a growing medium, effective alternatives exist, but the question remains about whether or not these options are more sustainable. From black garden soil to coconut coir to wood residues - other growing mediums can offer certain benefits to your growing project but are not necessarily better than peat-based mediums. In such cases where growers prefer to use mediums that are not peat-based, for whatever reason, soil amendments can offer an effective way to reap the benefits of peat more sustainably.
Peat-based humic acid and fulvic acid can be added to other growing mediums to increase their structure and water-holding capacity. Humic Land™ is produced using sustainably-sourced peat and processed in an environmentally-conscious way using a grinding and cavitation process without any chemical additives or high heat. When used in a low and steady microdose, this soil amendment will effectively add structure to the existing growing medium and improve its capacity to cycle nutrients due to the active microbiology present in the product.
The concentration rate of Humic Land™ allows growers to cover a vast area with only a small amount through their irrigation system - making this an effective way to maximize the benefits of the peat-based humic and fulvic acids. Humic Acid is known to benefit crop yields, contribute to lower field temperatures, and increase plant resistance to stress - but not all humic acids are sustainable and some sources of this soil amendment, like leonardite, are particularly problematic.
Sourcing Your Resources Wisely
Although the importance of peatland protection should not be understated, using peat moss in horticulture is not a significant contributing factor to their depletion. The peat moss that is harvested specifically for growing crops is done so in a way that is not invasive and is, in fact, regenerative. While peat is also harvested for fuel, this practice is thankfully in decline across the globe due to the negative impact it has proven to have on our environment and climate.
Ensuring that peat continues to be sourced in a sustainable way, and supporting companies who align with this mission will allow us to continue using this highly effective growing medium and soil amendment to maximize our food and crop production across America and the world.