A patented process to control the degradation of plant material during composting has been short-listed as a finalist in the Technical Product category in this year’s Grower of the Year awards.
The process was invented by Professor Keith Waldron from the Institute of Food Research and developed with the help of industry partners, Defra, the Technology Strategy Board and the BBSRC. It has enabled Professor Waldron to produce growing media with sufficient plant structure to provide an alternative to peat.
Sphagnum peat is the main growing medium used by growers, prized for its water holding qualities, structure and aeration. These qualities are derived from the plant structure of partially decayed mosses and other bog plants. Commercial composting usually destroys plant tissues, leaving an unreliable product for horticulturalists. Professor Waldron has invented a process to retain sufficient structure to produce a high quality growing media.
The technology developed at IFR has successfully produced a growing medium which closely mimics the properties of peat, said Dr Steve Carter, Technical Manager at Farplants, a co-operative of five growers.
Another key challenge for peat replacement is to find a reliable and sustainable supply of any alternative. Professor Waldron has focused on composted food-chain and food-processing waste such as mixtures of leafy vegetables, fruits and cereal by-products.
“Producing a peat alternative from organic waste allows material that is of little economic value to be converted into a growing medium,” said John Anderson from technology company Diverse Technologies.
The invention was made possible due to 15 years’ of research by Professor Waldron into the role of plant cell walls in food quality. He could apply his expertise in cell wall structure and function to understand how to control the composting process in order to retain structure and produce a high quality growing medium.
In collaboration with industry partners, Professor Waldron was able to build pilot-scale processing equipment. Much of the research involved the development and use of a bioreactor: the Composting Bioreactor for Research and Analysis (COBRA). The growing media produced have been tested in reduced peat growing trials with over 25 species of nursery plants of various sizes. Further plant trials are ongoing in a number of nurseries. The results show that the prototype growing media has the potential to be used as a peat substitute at up to 75% replacement.
The novel process has been successfully patented in the UK and filed in the US. In addition, the carbon footprint has the potential to be significantly less than that of peat-based growing media because it avoids the carbon release that is associated with peat exploitation.
Some nurseries may be able to compost their own waste and turn it into a growing medium they can sell.
“There is an opportunity to turn waste into cash,” said Professor Keith Waldron.
“I am grateful for this recognition which reflects the combined efforts of a Consortium of industrial and academic partners. The invention could help address the food waste problem and its costly disposal and at the same time reduce growers’ dependence on peat for mixing high quality growing media.”
Notes to Editors
The project partners are ASDA, Bulrush Horticulture Ltd, the Association for Organics Recycling, Del Monte Fresh Produce (UK) Ltd, Diverse Technologies Ltd., Farplants Sales Ltd, the Horticultural Development Company, the Institute of Food Research, Organic Recycling Ltd, Carlsberg, Madestein (UK) Ltd and Lincolnshire Herbs Ltd. The research has been supported by the UK government through Defra, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
The novel process has been successfully patented in the UK (GB 2445560) and filed in the US (Patent applied for No.20100071428).
Run by Horticulture Week and Grower in association with Asda, the Horticultural Trades Association and the National Farmers’ Union, the Grower of the Year Awards (www.groweroftheyear.co.uk) celebrate the very best in UK production horticulture. Winners will be announced during the evening of Thursday 17th February at an awards event, in front of their peers from production horticulture.