ISCF WAVE 1 AGRI TECH - Sphagnum Farming UK - a sustainable alternative to peat in growing media

Lead Research Organisation: University of East London
Department Name: Sustainability Research Institute

Abstract

The current commercial extraction of peat for use as a growing media in horticulture is widely acknowledged as unsustainable, is destroying increasingly rare and highly-valued ecosystems, is having an adverse effect on carbon emissions, and is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain within the constraints of the planning process. A high-quality alternative to peat as a growing medium is urgently needed if the growing media industry is to have a long-term future. Commercially farmed Sphagnum moss could provide this because the highest-quality horticultural peat consists largely of semi-decomposed Sphagnum leaf and stem fragments. Fresh Sphagnum provides the same characteristics and properties as high-quality peat but cannot currently be readily obtained from the wild because Sphagnum-rich areas have become increasingly rare and those which do remain are largely now protected under environmental legislation. Sphagnum farming, on the other hand, offers the potential to provide a sustainable supply of high-quality growing medium into the foreseeable future. Such farming requires a source of starting propagules at the outset, however, to generate the initial crop. This is currently a significant obstacle for the same reasons that make wild harvesting of fresh Sphagnum undesirable and difficult. Until now it has not been possible to propagate and grow Sphagnum in large quantities, a limitation which has prevented active consideration of the possibilities offered by fresh Sphagnum. Micropropagation Services Ltd (MPS), however, have researched a unique laboratory technique for the micropropagation of Sphagnum which now offers the potential to grow this moss on a commercial scale. This novel solution involves the mass production of Sphagnum from leaf fragments using sterile tissue culture - micropropagation. Since 2008 MMU has supplied research support to MPS to develop methods of planting propagated Sphagnum in the field for habitat restoration. The scale of restoration using these methods in northern England is significant, having increased to 1,000 ha of upland peatland in 2013-2015.

The current project proposal aims to establish the underpinning processes, the cultivation requirements and the production potential involved in growing Sphagnum on a scale sufficient to form source material in quantities which would make Sphagnum farming a viable proposition using cultivation techniques which are applicable at the farm-field scale. Our project will focus on an area of peatland which has previously been used for commercial peat extraction but which has now reached the end of its commercial life because there is little peat left to extract. MMU research within the consortium project will be strongly integrated with approaches at smaller and larger scales led by the other partners. MMU will field test the growth of selected Sphagnum genotypes in experimental small field plots; we will investigate the possibility of increasing production through nutrient addition. Drained peatlands are a source of respiratory CO2. Re-wetting and cultivation of Sphagnum has the potential to sequester carbon through raising CO2 assimilation in photosynthesis and cutting CO2 losses in respiration. However, the switch from a dry to a wet peatland may stimulate methane (CH4) emissions from the bog surface and surrounding irrigation ditches. The time-course and net benefits of wetting and Sphagnum cultivation on carbon exchange require evaluation. Nutrient demand and cycling by Sphagnum farming has not been assessed but requires investigation in order to provide optimal supply for production while minimizing losses such as emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide or release to water courses of dissolved inorganic nitrogen. Increased knowledge learned from MMU research will guide product development through improvement of Sphagnum production within an environmentally sustainable farming system.

Technical Summary

Commercial extraction of peat for growing media in horticulture is unsustainable, is destroying highly valued ecosystems and having an adverse effect on landscape greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. A sustainable alternative to commercially-valuable 'white peat' is needed to preserve peatland carbon stocks and to give the growing media industry a long-term future. This project aims to establish the principles and practicalities of growing Sphagnum moss as a commercial crop for use in horticulture and the consequences of this for GHG emissions and nutrient losses. Our partners Micropropagation Services Ltd (MPS) have developed tissue culture micropropagation of Sphagnum, which offers the potential to grow this moss on a commercial scale on re-wetted peatlands. Consortium research will use glasshouse growth trials, experimental field plots on a former peat-extraction site near Manchester, and larger field-trial plots established on agriculturalised peat near Loughborough. A detailed digital terrain model (DTM) of the various field plots will be obtained by University of East London (UEL) using terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) on the prepared ground, and a series of 'peat anchors' will provide fixed reference points to measure any subsequent swelling of the peat following re-wetting and Sphagnum crop growth and saleable volume over the project. GHG (CO2, CH4, N2O) flux rates and water chemistry will be monitored by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to understand the effect of different treatments on carbon balance, nutrient use and global warming potential while UEL will monitor water relations of the various plots both in terms of the water table in the peat and the pore-water pressure in the Sphagnum. Increased knowledge learned from this project will guide product development and Sphagnum production within an environmentally sustainable farming system.

Planned Impact

This consortium project will have an impact in the UK beyond the academic environment through close integration of University researchers (UEL and MMU) with lead organisation Micropropagation Services Ltd (MPS) and commercial partners Melcourt Industries (MI). This 15-month study seeks to investigate and develop the means of growing a commercial-scale Sphagnum crop and understanding the environmental consequences of cultivation. We anticipate specific impacts from this work to be seen in the following areas:

Growing-media industry: The phasing-out of peat in UK horticulture has serious implications for the producers and users of quality growing media in the industry, particularly as UK demand for growing media is increasing. Sphagnum as a growing medium offers a potential new income stream in the form of a sustainable alternative to peat to project partner MI as well as to other UK companies currently engaged in peat extraction but increasingly faced with time-limited consents. In particular, MI are closely involved in developing the Responsible Sourcing Scheme, an industry-wide initiative supported by DEFRA to reduce the use of peat. The potential exists to develop the supply chain of growing media more widely within both the UK and continental Europe through close partner contacts with the growing-media industry - e.g. partner links to the industry through Defra, and MPS with key German growing-media suppliers (Klasmann-Deilmann GmbH).

Plant growers: Sphagnum farming offers the horticultural industry a long-term sustainable supply of growing media, providing an effective product with environmentally sustainable credentials which could qualify for an EU 'eco-label' (peat does not qualify). UEL links with, for example, Gardening Which? and RSPB also offer the potential to encourage retail take-up through schemes such as RSPB's 'Give Nature a Home'.

Farmers and Land owners: Sphagnum farming on wetland soils offers farmers and landowners a new innovative high value crop for areas of peat soil currently subject to agricultural drainage and use but which are therefore subsiding and thus increasingly at risk from flooding as well as releasing significant quantities of carbon. Sphagnum farming offers one novel means of maintaining productivity from such land even with increasing policy shifts towards re-wetting such farmed peat soils UEL links with Defra and the Soil Association can be used to develop and promote this new form of sustainable agriculture.

Construction and recycling industry: UEL's work with the construction and recycling industry offers the opportunity to develop novel, commercially attractive materials derived from mixing Sphagnum with industry waste.

Government bodies: The project will inform policy in DEFRA, for example through the Defra/HDC/horticultural industry funded programme of work to 'Progress the transition to responsibly sourced growing media use within UK horticulture' (SP1215, 2015-2019). DEFRA is also currently preparing a peatland strategy for England, seeking to establish the sustainable management of UK peatlands and peatland soils, assisted by UEL. Sphagnum farming could play an important part within this since it provides a means by which current unsustainable wetland use could be transformed into sustainable practice. The current project proposal will explore carbon fluxes associated with Sphagnum farming and thereby inform DEFRA policy on reduction of carbon emissions from peatlands for climate change mitigation. Meanwhile both carbon and climate change responses across society as a whole are being considered by the UK Committee for Climate Change, with whom UEL is actively involved. Novel ways of managing UK peat soils to reduce carbon emissions and reduce flood risk is a significant part of the UKCCC's deliberations.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Water Table - Pore Water Pressure dynamics, as well as the position of the soil water-table, are important in Sphagnum Farming
Sphagnum Growth is demonstrably successful using MicroPropagated seedstock
Terrestrial Laser Scanning can provide accurate and comprehensive survey data to complement traditional monitoring methods when calculating development of crop volume.
Exploitation Route We are intending to publish the novel results from this work more formally through publication in Mires and Peat - which is rapidly becoming the journal of choice for peatland researchers around the world.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

 
Description Our findings have added materially to the understanding of what is possible in terms of the potential for commercial production of Sphagnum bog moss to be used in a variety of sectors but particularly within the horticultural sector as a growing medium to replace mined peat. While production of Sphagnum in greenhouse conditions on a commercially viable scale has already been demonstrated by one of our partners (MPS Ltd), growing Sphagnum in field conditions has not been attempted before in the UK, yet it is the potential for employing such approaches to agriculturalised peat soils that represents the cornerstone of the UK Government 25-Year Environment Plan approach to current massive losses of carbon from lowland agriculturalised peat soils. The demonstrable success of growing Sphagnum under field conditions in both deep peat and shallow peat soils has provided the Soils Team at Defra with the evidence required to underpin the targets and actions set out in the 25-Year Environment Plan. The findings have also helped our commercial partner organisations to develop and refine their production methods in order to maximise success in producing and using this new product.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Influence on Draft England Peat Strategy - awaiting publication
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
 
Title Use of terrestrial laser scanning for measurement of Sphagnum bog moss crop growth 
Description Use of terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) to measure the volume-change of a farmed Sphagnum crop over time and thus determine the relative performance of differing farming treatments. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact No notable impacts yet because the final analysis of crop yield has yet to be undertaken. 
 
Title Digital Terrain Model of Trial plots 
Description The research team in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University have generated the baseline scans, and follow up scans of the experimental plots using a Terrestrial Laser Scanner. This in combination with fixed ground markers and measured data will be used to calculate the biomass accumulation and peat soil surface changes over time. This time series currently covers the Autumn/ Winter period, and will be expanded to cover a full year including the most interesting summer period beyond this funding time frame. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This dataset along with other data generated through the project is highly novel. Therefore it will be incorporated into a number of papers discussing the UK's first Sphagnum Farming sites, which will be published as soon as possible. 
 
Title Pore water pressure dynamics during establishment of trial plots 
Description the Research team has gathered Pore water pressure at both sites during their establishment phase over the course of this project. Due to site construction time-frames this time series currently covers the Autumn/winter period, and will be expanded to cover a full year including the most interesting summer period beyond this funding time frame. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This dataset along with other data generated through the project is highly novel. Therefore it will be incorporated into a number of papers discussing the UK's first Sphagnum Farming sites, which will be published as soon as possible. 
 
Title Sphagnum Growth data during establishment of trials 
Description The research team has developed a variety of methods for moniotirng the growth of Sphganum moss begetation during the trial establishment phase over the course of this project. Due to the site construction time-frame, this time series currently covers the Autumn/winter period, and will be expanded to cover a full year including the most interesting summer period beyond this funding time frame. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This dataset along with other data generated through the project is highly novel. Therefore it will be incorporated into a number of papers discussing the UK's first Sphagnum Farming sites, which will be published as soon as possible. 
 
Title Water Table dynamics during establishment of trial plots 
Description UEL has collected water table data for the 2 research sites during their establishment phase over the course of this project. This has been achieved through conventional water level recorders, and the trial of innovative 'rust rods' which allow for more extensive coverage at a cheaper cost. due to site construction this time series currently covers the Autumn/winter period, and will be expanded to cover a full year including the most interesting summer period beyond this funding time frame. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This dataset along with other data generated through the project is highly novel. Therefore it will be incorporated into a number of papers discussing the UK's first Sphagnum Farming sites, which will be published as soon as possible. 
 
Description Developing a working relationship with researchers outside the project consortium 
Organisation Nottingham Trent University
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have developed a very good working relationship with Dr Ben Clutterbuck at Nottingham Trent University, whom has been contracted by UEL to undertake Terrestrial Laser Scanning (TLS) to produce a Digital terrain model of the Sphagnum Farming trial plots. We have worked together to develop a monitoring strategy at the trial locations and installed fixed markers to enable effective scanning by Dr Clutterbuck, joining him for fieldwork to learn more about the process of gathering and analyzing the data.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Ben Clutterbuck at Nottingham Trent University has provided us with his TLS expertise on this project, which has provided excellent quality data. as well as providing UEL researchers with knowledge exchange about TLS and the monitoring possibilities it presents.
Impact The outputs of this collaboration have been: Multidisciplinary: a combination of UEL's ecological monitoring expertise and NTU's surveying expertise Novel Data: on-site dynamics at the test plots, including ground level, future growth, and baseline information. Knowledge exchange between the collaborators.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Strengthening partnership actions with IUCN/Defra 
Organisation International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Department IUCN UK Peatland Programme
PI Contribution Our project, being the first research investigation into wetland farming (paludiculture) in the UK, has helped to shape the nature of the lowland peat subject area within the IUCN UK Peatland Programme's 2019 Commission of Inquiry.
Collaborator Contribution The IUCN UK Peatland Programme is undertaking a new Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into a range of topics concerning peatlands and their role within the UK's natural capital and their provision of ecosystem benefits to UK society and UK plc, including specifically the potential role of wetland farming (paludiculture), particularly in the UK lowlands. The CoI involves the commissioning of briefing papers on each CoI topic, then holding an open forum CoI event to explore these topics. The previous IUCN UKPP CoI involved events in each of the four devolved parliaments, and similar involvement is planned for this second CoI round.
Impact The Commission of Inquiry reports are currently in the process of being finalised. The CoI events themselves will be held in July 2019. The CoI will cover alternative forms of agriculture (paludiculture), forestry and peat-carbon flux, peatland hydrology, peatland economics, peatland biodiversity, peatland restoration ecology and hydrology, peatland ecological condition.
Start Year 2018
 
Description DEFRA site visit to research site 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The UEL team helped to deliver a site visit for civil servants from DEFRA to the Research site in Leicestershire.
The attendees involved the Soils and Peatlands Policy Specialist, and the Head of Farming and Trade. this provided an opportunity to showcase the early stage results, and reinforce the idea that paludiculture in the UK is possible and realistic. The visit resulted in lots of questions about the project and generated enthusiasm and support for the project from DEFRA. the possibility of a ministerial visit was also mentioned. which would provide further engagement opportunities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://twitter.com/DefraSoils/status/1054804928051507206
 
Description Keynote presentation at the Humberhead Peatlands LIFE+ Project Close Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was the Closing Conference of the Humberhead Peatlands LIFE+ Project, at which I gave the closing keynote speech. The speakers included specialists from peatland restoration projects in other parts of Europe, and the audience consisted largely of professional practitioners who intended to take the lessons from the conference and apply them to their own programmes of action. The Chair of the conference was the Chair of Natural England, who stated his intention to discuss the content of my talk, and the opportunities that it offered, with the Environment Secretary, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Presentation at the IUCN UK Peatland Programme conference 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Jack Clough RA, was asked to take part in a talk introducing paludiculture to a large audience at the IUCN UK Peatland Programme 2018 conference in Loch Lomond.

The talk aimed to introduce the concept, the products and some of the research work taking place in the UK to make the research area of paludiculture more visible to the largely academic audience.

This provided a useful opportunity for the Research team to mention the Sphagnum farming project, and establish it as a novel area of research, There were many questions, and requests for further information have arisen as a result of this talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/sites/www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/files/file_attach/1...
 
Description Talk introducing paludiculture to members of DEFRA. Natural England, and BEIS 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Jack Clough RA, was invited to give an introductory talk about paludiculture to an audience comprising of civil servants working in DEFRA and BEIS as well as public servants from Natural England. They wanted an introduction to the concept, the products available, and an idea of any projects currently occurring in the UK - which gave an opportunity to discuss the work we are delivering through this current project. The aim of this talk was to increase awareness and build support for this emerging area at a high level.

The talk achieved this aim, and provided information that has been directly incorporated into draft government policy - The England Peat Strategy
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://twitter.com/DefraSoils/status/1045022565935329281