Keith Nicholson, marketing director at Westland Horticulture, looks at sustainability and the challenges facing the sector
Westland Horticulture is significantly ahead of our plan in delivering ambitious sustainability targets across our potting soils and composts for 2021. However, we would warn that the toughest days lie ahead for the sector unless some reality is brought to the debate around peat. If we ignore the challenges and continue down the current track, we could see significant parts of the garden sector retract by as much as 20% and gardening participation return to levels of the early 2000s.
Westland is now using more than 75% of non-peat materials to produce our range of potting soils. This is significantly ahead of the industry standard and a result of over 18 years continuous investment in research and development into new substrates, and over £38m investment in infrastructure, sites, and materials.
This positive progress hides a deeper challenge around the pace of change versus the clear lack of suitable alternative materials for use in the horticultural sector. Not only is access to high quality, local, alternative materials at a critical level, but the development time for any new materials will take between eight and 10 years – from source, to research, to full manufacture. It is clear that we need to collaborate with government to overcome this significant shortfall in quality materials and deliver a positive road map which avoids setting unachievable targets, or worse again, simply shifts the environmental challenges elsewhere. Any short-term thinking will undermine the positive work done by many in the sector over recent years.
“We need to recognise the importance of horticulture to our economy and the essential societal benefits that gardening has on wellbeing, health and biodiversity.”
Westland is one of the creators of the Responsible Sourcing Scheme, an initiative that has brought together industry, NGOs and retail, along with the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), to deliver a sustainable future in growing substrates. This world leading programme assesses all substrates against several environmental benchmarks, ensuring the sector is making the right decisions for today and for the future. The scheme will challenge all materials and will question substrates that have issues in relation to contamination, water use, ethical and labour conditions, excessive air miles, deforestation or habitat loss. To avoid any damaging short-term decisions, it is crucial that the growing media sector has time to fully assess current and new materials to allow for a positive and sustainable transition.
The move from a reliance on a single material (peat) to multiple types of soilless mediums in order to germinate the 60 million seed packets sold annually and support all plants and edible production, is technically and operationally a massive undertaking for the industry. Some industry commentators assume that we, as an industry, can simply click our fingers and make another substrate available for gardeners. Clearly, this is not the case, and we must avoid decisions that will see the promotion of poor quality replacement materials that will have a long lasting impact on the gardening sector.
We need to recognise the importance of horticulture to our economy and the essential societal benefits that gardening has on wellbeing, health and biodiversity. We must harness the increased interest in growing, propagating and planting, and use this momentum to deliver a realistic roadmap to support a steady transition to world leading sustainable substrates that meet the demands of our industry and helps our nation’s gardens to thrive.