Mushroom sector wary of looming peat crisis
A local TD has called on Minister Charlie McConalogue to take a hands-on approach to what he describes as “the imminent crisis” facing the mushroom industry and the wider horticulture sector.
Deputy Matt Carthy was speaking following a hearing of the Oireachtas Agriculture committee, held to discuss the impact of peat shortages.
Following a ruling of the High Court in September 2019, harvesting of peat from bogs greater than 30 hectares now requires all harvesters to go through a complex licensing and planning regime. Horticultural peat harvesting on Irish bogs has all but ceased and the IFA forecast that Irish peat supplies will be exhausted before September.
The Cavan-Monaghan TD accused the government of “tokenism”, claiming it was putting the mushroom industry, which is significant in counties Cavan and Monaghan, into crisis.
Deputy Carthy accused Green Party Ministers Eamon Ryan, Pippa Hackett and Malcolm Noonan, who each have a role in the matter, of collectively either “not understanding the sector, not appreciating the extent of the crisis or simply not caring”.
“It is imperative that Minister Charlie McConalogue take a hands-on role,” said Deputy Carthy. “The shortage of horticultural peat could be potentially devastating for the mushroom industry and the wider horticulture sector. These are farmers who need a Minister to stand up for them.”
Responding to a query from The Anglo-Celt, Minister McConalogue emphasised, “In relation to peat extraction, my Department has no involvement in its regulation,” and proceeded to identify the two Departments who have responsibility.
While it presents an “imminent crisis” for some producers, it looms more in the medium term for Danny Malanaphy of Swanlinbar Mushrooms. He has been assured by his peat supplier he will have enough casing for the next five to six years.
However, “devastating” equates with Danny’s assessment of the impact of the removal of peat from the sector. Danny, who has run Swanlinbar Mushrooms for 23 years, and employs 24 staff.
“We cannot work without it,” says Danny bluntly. “It’s part of the jigsaw of growing mushrooms.”
Danny’s team produce between 18-20 tonnes of mushrooms per week in their seven tunnels, and peat used as ‘casing’ accounts for roughly 10% of his inputs.
“You have two inches of peat on top of the bed. It carries the water to feed the mushroom and transfers the mycelium from the compost to the top of the bed,” explains Danny also runs M-TEC Engineering a trailer manufacturing business.
Deputy Carthy said any “solution” mooted that sees Ireland import peat from abroad is “non-sensical lunacy” and would see “net global emissions rise in order to reduce peat consumption at home.
“At present, there is no sustainable alternative to peat. I expect and hope it will come. But, in the meantime, we need a realistic approach from government.
“Above all we need a Minister for Agriculture that will advocate for those agri-businesses that are facing an imminent crisis. We need Minister McConalogue to show leadership on this issue.”
Minister McConalogue also outlined to the Celt the work underway to secure a viable casing alternative.
“This Department is actively looking at alternatives to peat and has funded two research projects to date. It has also recently sought further research be conducted here to explore alternatives to peat based growing media for horticultural production in this area in its latest Research Call for 2021. These must be available, affordable and sustainable and meet quality as well as environmental requirements.”
The affordable aspect is crucial to Swanlinbar Mushrooms and other producers in a sector with very tight margins.
Danny Melanaphy said: “If there’s hassle and peat can’t be got, and no substitute for it – or if a substitute is two times the price – we couldn’t survive.”
The issue was raised nationally in eye-catching fashion on Tuesday as horticultural growers, led by IFA President Tim Cullinan, constructed a 50sq metre display with their produce outside the Convention Centre where the Dáil is sitting depicting the message ‘No Peat, No Produce’.
“Without immediate Government intervention to allow the harvesting of peat, the Irish horticultural sector faces wipe out. The ministers in charge here have to step in save the sector. The situation is now beyond serious,” warned Tim Cullinan.
The IFA outline that a consultation group was convened earlier this year to find a workable solution for the industry. The group has met six times and produced a comprehensive document outlining what the IFA describe as “workable solutions”. This document was completed in May however, no agreement has been reached between the political parties.