Saving peatlands while growing trees
Peatlands – those wet expanses that are too waterlogged for building or farming – are easy to overlook. Also known as bogs, or fens, it was only recently that scientists realised the true value of peatlands, which is, as the New York Times put it, “the unsung hero of carbon capture”. Usually, when a plant decomposes it releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. In peatlands, however, the ecosystem is so soggy that instead of decomposing, the plants are trapped, along with their carbon, within the earth. A mere 3 per cent of the planet’s surface is peatland, mainly in the northern hemisphere, yet it absorbs twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined. That striking statistic is matched by a deeply concerning one: drained peatlands – just 0.3 per cent of land on Earth – which are often dried out to meet agricultural and horticultural demands, account for 5 per cent of man-made global greenhouse emissions each year.
If we are to stem the tide of the climate crisis then preserving peatland is crucial. Yet peat, the organic surface layer of soil made up of partially decomposed vegetable matter, is considered a valuable resource – historically as a fuel, and still today as a commonly used compost. It is particularly useful as a medium for growing tree seedlings, which creates a conflict between the need to preserve peatlands and the importance of reforestation, another tool in the battle against global warming. “For a lot of companies in forestry that have invested in reducing the carbon emissions of their operation,” says Alicja Dzieciol, co-founder and director of SilviBio, “this is the main unaddressed issue.”
SilviBio, a science-based company in Scotland, is among a growing community of agritech startups investing time and research into these issues. But the forestry sector, says Dzieciol, is “particularly underserved… a somewhat forgotten field of innovation, particularly in the UK”. The company mission is to mitigate the climate crisis through products that improve the germination and survival of tree seedlings. One of its core products is a bio-based additive for glasshouse use that increases water retention and the performance of peat-free growing media. Other natural alternatives tend to require more watering or fertiliser, “and there is a cost associated with that, as well as an environmental one,” explains Dzieciol. "We’re improving the growing media to reach the performance required by growers, and reduce the overall environmental impact."
The seed for SilviBio was sown in 2019, when Dzieciol, who has a background in chemistry, responded to a challenge from Scotland’s public sector forestry organisation to develop ideas that could address seed germination and survival. There had recently been a period of drought in which up to 90 per cent of tree seeds had failed to germinate. Dzieciol received funding for her proposals of a soil additive, as well as a seed coating to improve moisture retention. She partnered with co-founder Mariela Aguilera Miranda, a plant scientist, to balance her expertise with someone from an agricultural background. Today, the team has nine members and the company has conducted trials in the UK, Germany, Sweden and Latvia, growing more than a million seedlings in the process. It has shown a 60 per cent germination improvement when untreated fields.
SilviBio is not just targeting state forestry organisations, but the expanding market for sustainably grown timber. Tree growing at forest nurseries is a complex operation; it is never as simple as switching out one product for another. “If they change the growing substrate,” says Dzieciol, “everything needs to be changed. From the beginning, we’ve been talking with the nursery forest growers to understand what their actual issues are and what they need. And, so, the products had really been made in collaboration.”
There is competition in this space, but Dzieciol is confident that SilviBio has a unique offering. It has benefited so far from funding and awards, but the market is set to grow rapidly as governments chase tree-growing targets, and peat products are phased out. While the professional horticulture industry continues to trial peat-free alternatives, the amateur gardening market will be forced to adapt more abruptly, which presents new opportunities for companies such as SilviBio. The UK government announced a ban on all peat-containing horticulture products for retail by 2024. By 2030, there will be a complete ban on all peat products, setting a hard deadline for the forestry sector and all growers, including food. With any luck, these measures, along with products like SilviBio’s, mean a bright future for the planet’s peatlands – and indeed a brighter future for the planet.
Awarded a PhD in chemistry from the University of Bristol, then becomes a research manager at In-Part, a company that facilitates scientific collaborations between academia and industry
Obtains funding through Scotland’s CivTech programme and co-founds SilviBio in response to a devastating UK wide drought
Gives a speech at COP26 in Glasgow and is awarded £50,000 for SilviBio’s innovative seed and soil treatment technology by Scottish EDGE, Scotland’s biggest business funding competition
Becomes a finalist in the EU prize for Women Innovators
Wins the Famigro Award, which rewards the best European rural entrepreneurship project of the year