In April, the Sri Lankan government announced that the country would go completely organic. Just four months later, amidst severe food inflation, the country is debating the decision as media reports quote experts warning that it could lead to a 50% loss in crop that wouldn’t be compensated by a matching increase in prices. Tea, which contributes nearly 10% of the country’s export income, is no exception.
In India, Darjeeling led the adoption of organic tea cultivation, moving away from the chemical excess of the 1960s’ green revolution. Over half of its gardens are organic. Anshuman Kanoria, a Darjeeling planter and head of the Indian Tea Exporters Association, believes it’s the only way forward since it’s what importers want. Higher prices, however, haven’t been able to compensate for the drop in yields, by half or more. He calls it “a choice between the devil and the deep sea”.
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Importers put teas through tests for MRL or maximum residue levels, and organic cultivation offers some safeguards against this. Getting organic certification for gardens, though, is expensive. New boutique brands, like The Tea Leaf Theory and Folklore Tea, choose to go organic but can ill-afford the processes of certification. Instead, they make small volumes of whole leaf teas for niche buyers.
Should large estates choose to convert, however, it has to be by section. The conversion period is said to be three years after stopping synthetic agrochemicals. The bushes must be protected from pests (a few hundred of them) far more rigorously. Above all, the farmer must be able to bear the initial loss of income, for four-five years, from the inevitable crop loss.
Some producers prefer the concept of responsible farming. In Assam’s Aideobarie tea estate, Raj Barooah recalls the looper attacks of 2010: “I could hear the sound of the loopers munching on the leaves at night. They would bite everything, leaves, bark….” He works with scientists from the Tocklai Tea Research Institute in Jorhat to adopt an integrated crop management approach. This includes the use of safe bio agents, such as beneficial pathogens and native medicinal plant extracts, reducing the dependence on chemicals. Research is on into non-chemical controls, like barrier crops (turmeric and bougainvillea) and the use of sticky traps (bright coloured adhesive strips).
“We need to sustain our farms to feed a global population of eight billion. Organic alone will not do that,” argues Barooah. “There will be a small market who will seek it, find it and subscribe to it. But for the world at large, we will need a growing movement towards responsible farming, and responsible crop management practices.”
The jury is still out, then, on whether organic farming at scale can work.
Don’t go just by organic certification; not every estate can afford certification. Seek brands that communicate how they adopt these practices. If a garden is not organic, turn the conversation to how their tea is safe to consume.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1