Tea Board determined to spruce up industry | Sunday Observer

Tea Board determined to spruce up industry

The tea industry regulator will go to the highest extent to spruce up the industry even to the point of shutting down factories that do not comply with standards, in order to maintain the quality of Ceylon Tea, as made clear in no uncertain terms by the chief of the Sri Lanka Tea Board, Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda in this interview with the Sunday Observer.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What are your observations on the present status of the tea industry?

A: Well, 2017 was generally a good year. Production rose by about five percent and prices rose substantially more than that. But, that is not to say we should be complacent. I think production would have risen by another five to ten percent if not for the ban on weedicides. That does not sound like much in percentage terms, but it equates to some Rs 10-20 billion in national income, the bulk of which would have gone into the hands of plantation workers. So it is a substantial socio-economic hit.

We did not see much volume-growth in our value-added sector either, and I am concerned about that. The main demand from these exporters has been to be given a freer hand in importing teas for blending and re-export, and we need to consider the best way forward there, too.

For now, I think all the indicators for the tea industry are okay, though not great. But there is a lot more to be done. Most important among the threats that face us is that the production capacity of the 700 factories now in operation greatly outweighs the availability of good leaf. When the demand for leaf is so high the quality of leaf necessarily falls. This means, the quality of the tea we produce is affected, which could cut into the premium prices our teas attract in the world market. We cannot meaningfully, at least in the short term, plant more tea. This means we need to cut down on factory capacity wherever possible. My intention is that we close down factories producing sub-standard teas. They must not be allowed to pull the whole industry down with them.

Q: Are you pleased with the standards followed by the industry or are there areas that need improvement?

A: The unique selling point of our tea is our origin: Ceylon. Ceylon is reputed for the quality, character and diversity of its teas. The only one of those three that can easily be addressed is the first: quality. What does this mean? It means tea that contains less stem and stalk matter; contains low moisture; is rich in polyphenols, and so on. So that is where our primary focus must lie, but, these are threatened because of the demand for good leaf outstripping supply as a result of redundant factory capacity.

Quality also implies purity. Our tea simply must be the cleanest in the world, i.e. eliminating extraneous matter such as the grit and plastic fragments often found in teas presented to auction. It also means ensuring that all such teas contain no more than the maximum pesticide residues set by the European Union, which standard we follow in Sri Lanka. I have already put the industry on notice that any factories producing tea with unacceptably high levels of pesticides or extraneous matter will be shut down. I have given time until February, and within this month we will be testing teas from at least 100 factories monthly, and suspending the operation of any found to be substantially in excess of the limits. There will be an outcry from the affected factories, but my primary interest is not these low-quality factories but the consumer. The consumers of Ceylon Tea, whether in Sri Lanka or overseas, have a right to drink only the best and purest tea. Any factory that cannot live up to that expectation must simply be sent out of business.

Q: What are the challenges faced by the tea industry due to the Glyphosate ban and what does the future hold for the industry without a viable alternative weed killer?

A: The effects of the ban on glyphosate have been disastrous for the industry. The disaster is not just in the loss of production. Let me explain some of the other consequences.

First, the most obvious alternative, manual weeding, is not an option. Manual weeding loosens the topsoil, with the result that the loose soil simply washes into the rivers and waterways with the next rains. It results in massive soil erosion. Besides silting up our rivers and reservoirs, remember that soil takes centuries to generate and replenish. Remember also, the washing off of just 1 millimeter of topsoil per hectare equates to about 10 metric tons of soil. Just imagine the scale of the environmental disaster that results from doing this over tens of thousands of hectares.

Second, although alternatives to glyphosate certainly exist, these alternatives need first to be affordable, and second to be acceptable to tea-importing countries. You need to remember that we are competing with other major tea-exporting countries such as Kenya and India. They use glyphosate. If we resort to more expensive alternatives, how can we compete? Our tea already incurs, per kilo, more than twice the production cost as theirs. This would simply put us out of business.

Another issue with resorting to alternatives is persuading tea-importing countries to accept residues of these alternatives in the tea we export. This is a long, slow process. I was in Japan last week, to negotiate these residue levels with their authorities, and the least-time they require for testing and approving a new herbicide in tea is four years. However, our government banned glyphosate overnight and for no valid reason. So we shouldn’t think that alternatives can be used just like that.

Finally, in the absence of approved alternatives, what do tea growers do? They resort to unapproved alternatives. This again spells disaster because the chemical residues permissible in tea have been carefully negotiated with the governments of importing countries over a matter of decades. If they suddenly find some unauthorized substance in our tea, they will simply ban our tea imports. So, while I am sympathetic to the tea producers for the predicament they are in, I have made it clear that if I caught them adding unacceptable levels of alternatives, or any alternatives not approved by the Tea Research Institute, I will immediately shut them down. We cannot risk a national calamity. It is worth reflecting on the reasons why glyphosate gets such a bad press. After all, it is the world’s most accepted weedicide. All other tea-producing countries use it. And no country in the world has yet banned food imports containing glyphosate residues. In Japan, for example, the maximum residue limit allowed for glyphosate is 100 times higher than that allowed for the most commonly used alternative, MCPA.

Q: Conclusion? Glyphosate is safe. So why the fear?

A: I suspect the origin of this problem stems from the fact that most of the world’s genetically-engineered (GE) crops are designed to be resistant to glyphosate. That way, farmers can liberally spray their fields of GE soy, maize or cotton without killing the crop-plant. This technology was pioneered by Monsanto, a multinational corporation. Now, many western “green” NGOs and the green political movements they support, are opposed to GE crops. This is a ‘political’ philosophy, rather like the organic-food philosophy, not one founded on science. Americans have been eating GE foods for a generation now and they aren’t dying like flies or glowing in the dark. But, in countries such as Germany, green political parties command huge influence because they control the balance of political power in coalition governments, failing which they certainly have the ear of their constituents. Hence, the propaganda.

The tragedy in Sri Lanka was that the government uncritically fell into the trap of believing the propaganda rather than the science. We have very competent institutions responsible for regulating our health and agriculture. We now live in much greater prosperity and better health thanks to them: the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health. Don’t forget that Sri Lankans are living 30 years longer now than they did in the pre-pesticide era. But the Registrar of Pesticides, the Director General of Agriculture, the Director of Tea Research, the Director of Medical Research, the National Academy of Sciences and so on were never consulted when the government banned glyphosate.

All this leaves the poor Sri Lanka Tea Board fighting what looks like a hopeless battle, but we will plod on and do the best we can under the circumstances.