Return of Glyphosate hangs in the balance | Sunday Observer

Return of Glyphosate hangs in the balance

“The physiological level of the workers has gone down drastically. The overgrowth of weeds in the estates only makes it more difficult for our employees to simply traverse one section of the plantation to another, let alone harvest and maintain the tea bushes.”
“The physiological level of the workers has gone down drastically. The overgrowth of weeds in the estates only makes it more difficult for our employees to simply traverse one section of the plantation to another, let alone harvest and maintain the tea bushes.”

The ban of the widely used herbicide glyphosate had a huge negative impact on the tea industry. The Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) said in a statement early this year, that crop losses were ‘devastating’ and cost in excess of an estimated Rs. 15 billion in the 18 months after the ban.

The PA pleaded with the Government to immediately provide a “rational and effective solution to the management of chemical weeding in the estate sector in a commercially viable manner.”

By the time the PA issued this statement, a Cabinet appointed committee headed by Ajita de Costa was reviewing the government policy on glyphosate. The committee noted that the ban on glyphosate has caused many difficulties to the tea industry; namely:

(a) The unavailability of effective herbicides has led to tea cultivators experimenting with unauthorized herbicides such as, MCPA which, if detected in the importing markets, could result in a ban on Sri Lankan tea imports, with drastic socio-economic consequences.

(b) It has left tea estates with no alternative but to resort to manual weeding which, in addition to high labour costs that jeopardize profitability, loosens topsoil and results in soil erosion on sloping lands.

(c) The inundation of tea plantations by weeds has led to a reduced use of fertilizer, depressing tea production still further.

(d) Glyphosate has been used by the tea industry for more than 15 years with no reports of adverse health effects in general, and CKD in particular;

(e) The above factors, taken together with the drought, led to a decline in tea production by about 12% in 2016.

When we spoke to PA Media Convener and Head of Hayleys’ Plantation Sector and Managing Director of Kelani Valley Plantations PLC and Talawakelle Tea Estates PLC, Roshan Rajadurai, he was not aware of the observations and recommendations made by the Cabinet-appointed committee to the government; however, he was hoping that ‘a viable’ solution for their issue would be found by the government soon. “We want the government to relax the ban and allow the tea farming sector to use it or find an alternative for glyphosate as it is essential for the industry to depend on chemical weedicides rather than manual labour to remove grasses in estates,” Rajadurai told the Sunday Observer.

The industry already has a major labour shortage and weeding by hand has created a massive cost issue in tea plantations.

“It is not only the costs, the growing grasses will affect the quality of tea as well,” Rajadurai said.

Besides, he said, there have been no reports of tea estate workers being affected by kidney disease in Sri Lanka yet, and there is no scientific evidence to prove that glyphosate is directly linked to the disease either. When the Sri Lankan tea industry is celebrating 150 years this year, the situation is becoming extremely dire for the estate sector.

“We have already faced some of the worst weather in recent times – from drought to deluge within a single year.”

Ethically produced varieties of tea

Sri Lankan tea is promoted as among the most ethically produced varieties of tea in the world and that valuable goodwill has been secured through a continuous process of monitoring and management of every step in the production, Rajadurai said.

“Between the numerous certification requirements and the regulatory standards of export markets, we are required to maintain Minimum Residue Levels of chemicals within certain absolute limits, simply to sell our tea in the first place,” he said. This was partly because of the extremely stringent controls placed on Sri Lankan tea, which must maintain compliance with the standards of organisations such as, the Forest Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance, and Ethical Tea Partnership on labour practices, agricultural techniques, fertilizers and chemical usage.

Rajadurai said, the EU has just passed the use of glyphosate for another 10 years. “There are no issues with glyphosate in other countries. The biggest black tea producers, India and Kenya, use the chemical without any issues.

“If we make a judgment to say that glyphosate is connected to CKD, how do we ensure that the food we import has been produced without the use of this chemical? How do we know what they are sprayed with?”

Rajadurai said the estates are currently using manual weeding methods, which destroys the nutrients in the soil and leaves a layer of loose soil, causing soil erosion.

That is far more damaging in the long-run. Glyphosate is bio degradable and when it comes in touch with the soil, it gets inactivated, he added.

Rajadurai also said, the physiological level of the workers has gone down drastically. “The overgrowth of weeds in the estates only makes it more difficult for our employees to simply traverse one section of the plantation to another, let alone harvest and maintain the tea bushes.” Increased undergrowth also creates an environment for more snakes and other predators.

The well grown mat of grass attracts animals like cows and goats and leads to the growth of leeches. “Workers find it difficult to work in such conditions.” 

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