3 Give us a voice!

Give Us A Voice!

An article with a difference provided by Noel MacKenzie, B.Sc.(Hons), MBPR, Principal Consultant at Sports Turf Consulting.

For a little while now there have been rumblings of concern over the situation the industry finds itself in, and the wider implications this has for others who enjoy and benefit from the spin-offs of our work. This was highlighted at the National Turfgrass Foundation Conference in December where a discussion developed around the issue of 3rd generation (3G) synthetic pitches. However, pesticide and chemical legislation is another weighty issue.

The sports turf industry today is awash with interest groups which include the IOG, BIGGA, BIGCA, BAGCC, TGA, EIGCA, FEGGA, LDCA, GCSA, and then there are the sports bodies such as the R&A, the golf unions, ECB, LTA, FIFA, FA, etc to mention just a few. Some of these organisations have closely targeted remits and serve their members well. Others were set up with a particular aim but now have others (namely to make money and be 'commercially successful') and in some instances these compete against their own members for business! We need to ask ourselves what really happens at a very high level and who has a voice for the turf industry as a whole through examining these two example areas that concern us all.

Limitations on Pesticides

A few months ago I penned an article for the GCSA magazine on worm control within which I highlighted the limited opportunity we have for controlling both worms and other pests as a result of the reduction in materials on the market. The bottom line is that turf quality is harder to maintain now due to the lack of effective pesticides. Furthermore, the limited number of chemicals that are available are more likely to have a short shelf life as reducing the variety of active ingredients increases the rate of occurrence of resistance to treatments. So, in summary, there are fewer options for control, less effective control and shorter product life-spans.

Now, before I get taken to task by the environmental lobby let me state that I am a graduate in Ecology, a parent, and for a whole host of reasons do not agree with willy-nilly pesticide use. Having said that, the fine turf area in the UK is minute in comparison with the agricultural sector and highways maintenance so our impact is extremely small and lessened by the significant training and continuous professional development (CPD) that our turf professionals engage in.

As an industry we are seeing the removal of materials due to a host of reasons e.g. direct toxicity, cancer risks, leaching/environmental mobility, bioconcentration, etc. It is right that some of these materials are removed and are not available. However, I am conscious that I do not hear a voice saying, "Where is the replacement that is safe?" The development of new materials is left largely to companies such as Syngenta, Bayer, Dow Agrosciences, Monsanto, etc, to establish if there is a market and whether it is commercially viable to develop a product. Usually the answer is that it is not viable to generate some pesticide material for the sports turf market alone, hence why most products come from agriculture and horticulture. Such developments may also rely on distributors to work in partnership with the company with the patents on the technology, enter Rigby Taylor, Scotts, etc. A great deal of liaison and commercial risk has to be undertaken to bring replacement materials to our market, which is not seen, in a corporate, global sense as being a very big one!

Who in the industry voices the problems created by the loss of turf quality as these products are taken from our arsenal of options? Who voices the implications in a wider social sense from the deterioration in playing quality of our open spaces and parks as football pitches become muddy messes due to worms or golf fairways are ripped up by crows looking for chafer grub larvae that cannot be treated? Our clients pay hundreds, even thousands, of pounds for their 'product' (clean, sporting turf); would any other industry (think food, textiles and fashion, cars) withstand controls on preventing decline of their product without a voice? Because we are out in the open and spraying is so visible we seem to be held to account, which is right, but without a voice to fight our corner?

Synthetics - Of Football and Other Things….

Let us consider another situation, that of stadia and 3G synthetic pitches developed for football that have currently warmed many column inches. For years architects of stadia and contractors have failed to react to information available within our industry concerning the amount of light and shade that natural turf needs to grow. Stadia have been developed with moveable pitches but these are few and far between despite the multiple use benefits (and therefore environmental benefits) these facilities present. As a nation we have the embarrassment of a National Stadium which is unsustainable for the maintenance of a turf pitch, the very surface that the whole stadium is built to allow observation of. After the situation at Ajax surely that the lessons were not learnt is almost unforgivable. Looking around what of the next developments on the horizon?

Everyone in the industry with a technical understanding can foresee the problems at Twickenham with the final closing in of the ground at the south end with the hotel and stand. These problems will require expensive technical solutions to minimise the problems, e.g. 'experimental' lighting arrays, as a fall back and a very energy inefficient approach to solving a situation that probably shouldn't be created. Let us hope that there has been sufficient attention paid to design and costs (long term) of such developments. What of Wembley? With a new design from scratch and the involvement of some technically sound consultants the picture is hopefully brighter. However in the meantime in the football sector things have been changing…enter 3G synthetic pitches.

So FIFA and the FA now publish a specification for acceptable standards of surface using 3-G synthetic pitches. A good deal of time and money has probably been spent convincing the hierarchy in sports organisations of the benefits of 3G, and by individual companies in wooing their prospective client bases and the sport as a whole. In the decades, nay century plus, of the sports history there has been no attempt to develop a 'standard' for either the construction of a natural turf pitch (unlike golf greens) or the stadia that surround them. Research monies have been spent but there has been a piecemeal approach to turf because that is usually the way with existing technologies rather than new ones. Surely we should ask why the sports governing bodies have invested so little in determining good scientifically based criteria for natural pitch construction. We can also ask ourselves, as an industry, why so many schemes sold to clubs are not tried and tested - look at some clubs that in a 10 year period re-laid their pitches 8 times! Our industry deserves better than that situation both from within and from the governing bodies. A fraction of the earnings of sport officials, the bureaucracy of the organisations and player transfer fees and salaries would easily fund the necessary work to improve and create a guideline for grass pitch construction. Furthermore, governing bodies could also fund an advisory service to support clubs with maintenance agronomy to optimise management of pitches.

Within football there appears to be a great many players and managers in the game for whom the spectre of 3G does not appear appetising, citing increased risk of injury; questioning what is wrong with good grass surfaces; voicing concern that players may be psychologically less willing to commit due to fear of injury; and highlighting costs for lower division clubs (most of which are still struggling after years of financial worry). There are big names within the game (The Professional Footballers Association and Michel Platini) asking, "Why do we need to change from grass?"

The threat to natural turf is very tangible but have we worried too much? Let us consider national or premier situations. In these situations synthetics are claimed to provide a level 'playing field' for all countries to compete on and a surface that is available to them at home. FIFA, UEFA and FA backing of 3G appears to be driven by those countries in the high latitudes e.g. Russia, Canada, etc and those in low latitudes, especially developing countries, who for both technical and political reasons seem unable to create good natural grass pitches. If premier and national stadia use 3G surfaces it would be a shame and a loss but it might be a bearable loss, although the television presentation of pitches and game itself would change.

However, there are threats to natural turf management and the wider turf and amenity industry. Let us think where the majority of football is played - local parks and schools. Now think of an accountant in government looking to cut expenditure and hey presto! Let's have 3G synthetics instead of a load of grass pitches that are costly to maintain. The problem with this is:

3G is not a sustainable system - it may last 5-10 years.

3G uses 11 tonnes of plastic and 80 tonnes of rubber per pitch.

3G does not photosynthesise i.e. it does not produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.

3G surfaces do not cool the air by evapotranspiration.

3G does not support an ecological system, not even a modified one.

Who will foot the bill for the replacement of the pitch at the end of its life?

What will happen to the rubber and plastic at the end of its life?

Where do the dog walkers go?

Where do the softballers go?

Where do the sports days go?

Where do the kite fliers go?

Who will know of the feeling of grass on bare feet and the smell of its fresh cut leaves?

What will the hidden costs be in terms of urban decay, crime and vandalism?

I could go on…

In pure footballing terms the financial arguments in local government may yet be made but the wider community issues are staggering. What will happen to parks? Will they disappear (as so many playing fields have) and be built on? Or will the wisdom prevail that parks are subsidised by sports usage and should be maintained for the wider community? It should be remembered that there is no statutory duty for parks to be provided by local government.

Football is not alone either. We have seen hockey move to synthetic despite problems of higher injuries, some bowling clubs and the movement of the game to indoor facilities, cricket has tinkered with synthetics and tennis is played heavily on synthetic despite the way the game becomes 'safer' on this surface. Is golf invulnerable to the changes taking place? To a large extent I believe it is less at risk than might be imagined. However, the golfing public may be like bowlers in the post war era. After the Second World War bowls was very popular but as the old guard have aged, retired and moved abroad the game is in decline and struggling to meet the costs of greens maintenance. Will golf be there in the future, perhaps 20-40 years or so, when many members hang up their clubs…who knows? Will the scarcity of fossil fuels by that time demand a different approach, perhaps greens that perform to a 'standard' only to be achieved by synthetics? Golf is driven at the professional level just as football is so when money talks nothing should be taken for granted.

The problem is one of seeking standardisation of facilities - players no longer play each other and the surface, they just play each other and the skill that they have in adapting is taken out of the contest. In some ways we are, perhaps, our own worst enemies, we try to standardise conditions from natural turf which is fraught with problems because it often overlooks the input of the skilled groundsman or greenkeeper in working with the different materials in situ. We must accept that grounds management is an art with a marriage to science, not a rational science alone.

While all this change is on-going skilled groundsmen and greenkeepers leave the industry disillusioned by management ethics and lack of support for their cause. Why wouldn't people leave an industry that does not adequately reward their skills and responsibilities, often hampered by published wage scales that ignore the economics of the free market and cost of living in some areas. Consequently, turf sporting surfaces decline further and this leads to stronger arguments for artificial surfaces.

Synthetic surfaces seem to be a dumbing down of our existence and experience within the open air environment and an example of further 'domestication' of the human race. Will it no longer be enough that our children in cities and towns think milk comes from a carton? Will they understand that when they are told cows eat the grass they immediately think of the 3Gsynthetic in their local area because there is no natural grass or parkland? I hope not.

In an uncertain future where there are serious ecological uncertainties for all species (yes, that includes man) driven by climate change, it must surely be right for natural turf to continue rather than cover over more of our planet with artificial substances that are not sustainable and create disposal problems in the future. Grass offers so many advantages in contrast to man-made systems that the least we owe ourselves, our children's future and the planet is to have a rational debate about some of the issues involved. At present we see commercial interests steering governing bodies through their marketing efforts in a way that jeopardises natural turf unnecessarily.

Summary

There is a clear need for a political voice and lead group of key people to represent our industry and the public interests it serves. If we (that means you as an individual!) collectively do not act then the turf industry will change, shrink and become very exclusively golf and low quality natural turf in amenity situations.

Much of the support our industry gets is a re-cycling of funds made in sales of products. Look at BIGGA, IOG and NTF as examples, here significant funding is gained by seeking 'membership deals' and sponsorships from companies. Sponsorship of charities like the NTF by the likes of British Seed Houses, Syngenta, Toro, etc, is good and should be applauded. However, organisations that are operating as businesses rather than representing their members interests should, it is suggested, re-examine their core values and corporate objectives. It is not possible for an organisation to trade in one area and yet purport to be independently representing the industry or its members in another breath. Sponsors may want to consider how they support organisations operating in this way and increasingly the schemes that exist are being examined closely by commercial 'sponsors' in view of the poor value for money and 'sponging' that they perceive is taking place.

Key organisations must focus on their abilities to bring about change rather than being 'commercial entities'. They must also realise that competing with their own members and the organisations and individuals who have supported them is a very short sighted view.

So a clear voice, a united voice and a voice that will be heard and recognised as having something valuable to contribute is what we need. The forum for the next stage would be to gather representatives to work globally and nationally on this front and no topic would be of greater importance than that of 3G synthetics.

If you have read the above and want to comment why not join the debate which I am sure will follow on Pitchcare.com. I look forward to reading them and hope that a consensus will build for a new way forward.

Editor Note:

Noel MacKenzie has kindly given Pitchcare first option on this article and we're delighted to publish this and any other articles for the natural grass/synthetic turf discussion.

Noel can be contacted on 01285 641825 or e-mail info@sportsturfconsulting.co.uk

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