Debunk: Turf is not an ‘agricultural crop’; burning it is polluting and unhealthy

It can take 1,000 years for a metre of peat to form.

POSTS ONLINE SINGING the praises of turf as an “agricultural crop” falsely imply that burning it is healthy, and appear to purposely ignore any of its polluting effects.

One such post reads: “Turf is an Agricultural Crop grown in Irish Bogs. It is harvested for the benefit of the people and families in Ireland.

“It can be sold, traded, advertised for sale, bartered etc in the same way as any other Agricultural crop like potatoes, carrots, grass, wheat etc.

“Turf is the most economical fuel for heating the home, providing a 24/7 hot water and cooking meals. Turf produces natural and healthy heat. Turf is not a fossil fuel because it is grown on the Earth’s surface.”

Turf, also known as peat, is formed by the decay of plants and trees, accumulated over hundreds of thousands of years. Peat is made naturally in bogs, which formed in Ireland at the end of the last ice age. The Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture estimates it takes 10 years for a centimeter of peat to form. 

Turf does not fit common definitions for a “crop”.

While there have been some recent attempts to preserve peatlands, almost all turf that is harvested was formed naturally centuries ago, and therefore, outside of  specific legal settings, should not be called “agricultural”, a term associated with the cultivation of crops or the raising of livestock. 

As such, it is misleading to call peat an “agricultural crop”.

There is disagreement as to whether peat should be considered a “fossil fuel”, however it certainly matches many common dictionary definitions for fossil fuel and the Geological Survey Ireland, Eurostat, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change all describe peat as a fossil fuel or as a source of fossil carbon.

The Facebook post also claims that burning turf creates a “healthy heat”. This is untrue. A previous article by The Journal’s FactCheck unit found that burning turf contributes significantly to air pollution and leads to premature deaths across the country.

In lab tests, peat briquettes performed better than turf sods, but still released significant amounts of particulate emissions, which have significant negative impacts on health. 

The post also ignores the high carbon cost of turf.

A 2020 report from the Sustainable Energy Authority Of Ireland found more than 70% of peat was used for electricity generation. It also found that peat (including peat briquettes), was the most emissions-intensive source of electricity generation, accounting for 21.6% of CO2 emissions from electricity generation while only producing 8.8% of the electricity available for use.

The Irish Environmental Protection Agency says that peat use for electricity generation has since fallen, leading to a significant drop in the energy sector’s CO2 emissions.

As turf is bad for people’s health and bad for the environment, matches most definitions for a fossil fuel, is not a crop, and is harvested from bogs that were not cultivated, we find the claim made on social media false. 

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