The truth about peat moss


Wetlands provide an important habitat for many diverse species

Jesse Trail asks us to re-examine our concerns about peat extraction, querying whether the peat moss industry might actually function as conservation stewards of these unique wetland ecosystems
If properly managed, peat moss can be a renewable resource

Sphagnum peat moss is a valuable, well-known, natural, organic resource that is predominately harvested for use as a soil conditioner or amendment by farmers, landscapers and gardeners. It is often referred to as the universal soil conditioner for its benefits to the soil.

Prairie farmers in Canada use it extensively. The decayed and dried sphagnum peat moss is usually referred to as simply peat moss. As a soil amendment, it is free of weed seeds, pests and pathogens and can absorb up to 20 times its weight in water.

The peat bogs from which peat moss is derived are one of the most distinctive kinds of wetlands. Wetlands are vital ecosystems, therefore conservation and wise environmentally responsible harvesting practices and procedures of peat moss are of paramount importance. 

Unfortunately, the use of peat moss has been given a lot of bad press in many regions of the world, including many areas of Europe and the U.S.A. The thinking is that peat moss is a non-renewable resource and should not be used. Such statements have appeared in books and magazines over the years and can be quite damaging to the peat moss industry. 

Just how did this negative perception of peat moss develop? In much of Europe most of the peat bog wetlands have disappeared or have been damaged extensively, through overharvesting over a long period of time, and by drainage to allow for the development of agricultural land and urban sprawl. The environmental and ecological impact form this is evident. From this, it is easy to understand why peat moss harvesting is strictly controlled and its use has decreased significantly in much of Europe.

A very similar situation and concern exists in most of the continental U.S.A. where many wetlands have also disappeared over time. Alaska is the most prominent exception here, as most of this state’s wetlands still exist. The wetlands here comprise close to half of the state. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working to reduce wetland loss in many other regions of the U.S.A. through restoration, reducing drainage loss and other management and awareness projects, including promoting education.

Most peat bogs are found in the northern hemisphere, including Canada, Russia, parts of northern Europe and the U.S.A. Canada contains vast areas of peat bog wetlands; 119 million hectares (294 million acres) or approximately 25% of the entire world’s peatlands. The Canadian horticultural peat industry operates on less than 22,000 hectares (54,363 acres) of these peat bogs nationally. The amount of peat moss harvested from Canadian peat bogs every year is nearly 60 times less than the total annual accumulation of new peat moss.

If properly managed, peat moss can be a renewable resource

Canada supplies up to 80% of North America’s peat moss. It is a high quality horticultural peat product. Through proper management and harvesting practices and research, the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA) and associated organizations and institutions, are doing their best to ensure that peat moss is a renewable resource. 

When I asked Paul Short; President, CSPMA how managing peat bogs in a sustainable fashion was being done, his response was: “Our industry through policy and practice is committed to return post-harvest sites to functioning peatland ecosystems.” “Peatlands (bogs and fens) need to be acknowledged as natural biological resources and managed to ensure their environmental, social and economic values are sustained. The key is responsible management that sets aside areas for protection and conservation and puts in place management practices that ensure the retention of ecosystem goods and services following development."

"We believe that our industries commitments to the combination of continued leading edge peatland research, applied science base restoration techniques and improved responsible peatland management will provide sustainable peatland management that recognizes the environmental, social and economic values of Canada’s peatland resources”

I appreciate the ethical manner in which the peat industry in Canada is focused on proper management and harvesting practices. I asked Paul Short what he would rate as the most challenging aspect of this process. “Awareness and understanding by the public and government agencies of our ability to restore peatland ecosystem functions and the commitment to responsible peatland management. Our challenge is to communicate to these stakeholders our continued support for science based research, the outcomes from this work and our efforts to advance responsible management of peatlands.

I asked Stephanie Boudreau, Science Coordinator Biologist (M.Sc.) of the Quebec Peat Moss Producers Association and the CSPMA, and as the science coordinator of the Canadian Peat Industry, what is the importance in properly managing our peat bogs from an ecological perspective?

“Biodiversity, hydrology and carbon (Green House Gas) are the main topics related to responsible and sustainable peatland management in the North American context.”

I also asked Stephanie Boudreau how long it takes peat bogs to replenish/recover from harvesting with our most up to date harvesting practices.

“Based on the moss transfer technique developed through the research program, a sphagnum dominated plant cover is re-established within 3-5 years following restoration, biodiversity and hydrology is approaching pre harvest conditions and carbon sequestration should become a net sink within 15-20 years.”

The Peatland Ecology Research Group (PERG), based at Laval University in Quebec was and still is the Canadian leader in peatland restoration, management and research, working in partnership with the peat industry for almost 20 years now.

One other important aspect in properly managing the harvesting of peat moss in an environmentally, ecologically and sustainability responsible manner is the carbon accumulation associated with peatlands. Wetlands provide carbon sinks, storing large amounts of carbon and are therefore important in the context of climate change, reducing the impact of global warming and in lessening levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Wetlands are the most highly threatened ecosystems on earth and therefore, it is of vital importance that we be the best stewards of these areas that we can be. Wetlands such as peatlands are the home to a vast diversity of flora and fauna. They provide nesting and migratory flyways for many kinds of birds, spawning grounds for certain fish species, ideal habitat conditions for many amphibians and insects, unique plants such as many sundew species, and much more than this. It is imperative that we conserve these habitats.

Wetlands also support a wide range of goods and services, such as tourism, conservation parks and more. I invite you to visit a wetlands park near to you that has a portion open to the public for learning, increased understanding, awareness and appreciation of the importance of wetlands around the world, and this includes peatlands.

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