The National Trust is reducing the use of mushrooms in many of its cafes and restaurants. I was bemused by this, until I learned that most mushrooms for sale in the UK are grown in peat.

With this fact in mind, the NT’s position makes sense, given it was one of the first UK organisations to ban the use and sale of peat as a growing medium in its gardens.

I was astounded to learn that growing mushrooms requires 100,000 cubic metres of peat a year, equivalent to a ninth of all peat extracted in the UK. This matters, because peatland contains so much carbon that it’s sometimes described as ‘the UK’s rainforest’. But when it’s extracted for horticulture it becomes a carbon emitter – and the depleted peatland left over is also less effective in storing carbon.

So, it’s really important to look after our peatlands, and it’s why the government’s committed to restore 280,000 hectares of peatland in England alone by 2050, to help meet its climate change goals. The government is also bringing in a ban on using peat in private gardens and allotments – but not until 2026.

Mushroom businesses are crying outrage at the NT’s decision, but a bunch of growers are already experimenting with alternatives, like coir and grass fibres, with some success. And it mightn’t be too long before all growers will have to follow suit, because the government recently consulted on phasing out peat use in commercial horticulture by 2028.

The NT’s ban on mushrooms in its cafes won’t on its own do much to protect our precious peat. But it’s raised awareness that mushrooms – and many other vegetables – are grown on peat, and that’s just not sustainable. As more people realise this, demand will grow for peat-free mushrooms and more innovative growers will work to identify and scale up alternatives.

In the meantime, I don’t think it’s sensible for us all to boycott mushrooms, but perhaps, like with meat, we could decide to eat them a bit less often until a sustainable solution has been found.

– Written by Liz Barling

This article was first published in the Keynsham Voice – April 2024