The Future of Vegetable Production on Lowland Peat exposes the risks of continuing to drain the UK’s limited areas of lowland peat for intensive cultivation, which releases huge quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere while depleting soils and landscapes that are essential to UK food security.
The report is an independent study by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and NIAB, commissioned through the WWF and Tesco partnership.
Overall, as much as 40% of UK-grown vegetables are produced on lowland peat, with production concentrated in areas like the East Anglian Fens and Lancashire. Yet agriculture on these areas also has the highest CO2 emissions per unit area of any form of land-use in the UK because of drainage practices; protecting these areas by raising water levels is therefore vital if the UK is to achieve its ambition for net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and to halt nature loss.
Despite their critical importance, the report highlights that a significant proportion of the UK’s limited areas of lowland peat is being used to produce crops that are not for human consumption, like cereals and maize to be processed for biogas. These crops, which are equally well suited to cultivation on mineral soils, are further adding to the degradation of precious peatlands.
To address these impacts, the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget sets ambitious targets for restoration and rewetting of peat by 2050, but progress to date has been limited - according to the CCC’s latest progress report, current peatland restoration rates are one-sixth of that needed to meet net zero.
The Future of Vegetable Production on Lowland Peat report makes clear the need to support and empower farmers and local communities to lead the way in the sustainable management of lowland peat, for example supporting communities to align on collaborative solutions, like raising the water table across whole areas of land, which simply would not be possible for individual farmers.
WWF and Tesco are therefore calling on the UK Government to bring forward a comprehensive land use framework that sets a long-term future for lowland peat, including a robust strategy to support the horticulture sector in shifting towards more sustainable practices on lowland peat, including prioritising crops for direct human consumption, and supporting improved water table management.
The report's suggestions
Due to the UK’s reliance on lowland peat for vegetable production, the report recommends a pragmatic approach, raising water tables where possible and prioritising the production of edible crops on peat, particularly crops that can tolerate a higher water table, rather than moving off peatland altogether.
For example, the report looks at the potential to create mosaic landscapes - a patchwork of continued high value cropping systems under wetter conditions, integrated with alternative wetter forms of land use such as paludiculture (wetland agriculture) or carbon farming, wetland management, and renewable-based controlled environment agriculture.
Meanwhile, crops which can easily be grown on mineral soils, particularly those not intended for human consumption like maize for anaerobic digestion and cereals for livestock feed should be shifted off peatland altogether, and demand for their use reduced more widely.
This approach could free up some areas of peat for restoration, while also allowing for some rewetting and continued vegetable production on some areas, helping to drive down emissions and bolster the resilience of UK vegetable production.
Alongside a land use framework, the report recommends a spatial decision-making tool to support farmers on lowland peat to understand where land is suitable for different interventions, from continued production to full rewetting.
Finally, as well as restoring peatlands to deliver climate and nature wins, the report highlights potential alternative uses for these landscapes to support the shift to net zero.
Dr Elizabeth Stockdale, Head of Farming Systems and Agronomy Research at NIAB said: "There is a common perception that re-wetted lowland peatlands can only be managed for conservation, however there are a growing number of options to manage re-wetted land commercially, e.g. food crops and paludiculture options as well as carbon farming."
"Any rewetting actions will require close co-operation between water and land managers at local scales; much can also be learned across farms and IDBs and hence a peer-peer and peer-expert reflection and learning will be essential so that any changes at local and landscape scales deliver for food security, biodiversity and for GHG mitigation."