Experts call for a paradigm shift to save tea industry

Experts in the tea industry have called for a paradigm shift to save the tea industry.

Rohan Fernando, Chairman of  HVA Group said that the good name of Ceylon tea is being questioned in sophisticated markets like japan and Germany.

“Where is our tea industry heading? What technology and innovations have we brought into the tea fields since this industry was handed over by the entrepreneurs of the British Empire, after we gained Independence (or did Briton get independences from SL?) At that time our tea industry was world renowned and Ceylon Tea was the preferred choice amongst the tea lovers. More than all these, the Tea Industry was the largest contributor to the national economy and to the exchequer in terms of taxes. Today after seventy years of self rule we are in a pathetic situation. The good name of Ceylon tea is being questioned in sophisticated markets like japan and Germany,” he said.

Fernando said that every year the state has to dole out subsidies to keep the small tea farmers, accounting for 60% of the national tea out put happy and content.

He noted that it is the taxpayers money the government is spending to placate the large voter base in the tea plantations.

“The reason for this debacle is wrong and populistic government policies since the 1970’s. All successive governments have played politics in commerce and we are all forced to pay for their follies. The global agriculture has developed leaps and bounds using technology for growing and primary processing. A constant and continuous analysis of the ground situation with regard to the essentials for agriculture and the ever changing consumer habits for FMCG are key elements for sustainable agriculture,” he said.

Fernando said that tea being brought under food category, stringent quality checks are performed on the possible ill-effects in terms of chemical residuals present after processing the products.

“Good agricultural practices under GMP need the strictest adherence to, for our industry to move ahead,” he said.

Fernando also said that the ban on Glyphosate and the subsequent lifting of the ban has caused much debate.

“The fact of the matter is, Glyphosate is a strong chemical and must be used with caution as per the instructions for application. Even with caution being exercised, the continuous use of any chemical will have long term effects on the soil, plant and the atmosphere. How did we plant tea before Glyphosate was introduced in the 1970’s? How will the situation be once this chemical is banned eventually by the ultimate decision makers in the US and Western allies? Now that US has given a court verdict it is very much a possibility that Glyphosate will be phased out sooner than later. Are we ready with alternate agricultural practices. We have the TRI, RRI, CRI and several other research institutions to come up with alternate farming methods which are cost effective and safe for consumption. It appears that all these state institutions have miserably failed in their national duty,” he said.

He says, when looking at the Rooibos plantations in the African continent, he feels that Sri Lanka tea plantations including the tea industry per se have been left far behind in terms of field technology.

“We chant the choruses like banning Glyphosate, no money for Replanting, Drought, no funds for Fertiliser, Minimum wage etc singularly and combined, regularly to cover up the inefficiencies and demand handouts using the voter base and the tea-monopoly as bargaining tools. On the contrary if we restructure our plantations to overcome total dependence on Glyphosate by a given period and have planting methods changed to suite the modern times to be less labour intense and get maximum benefit from the rainfall by preserving the excess run-off water and reuse the reserves during dry periods, use solar, biomass, hydro and wind as supplementary energy sources, deploy the latest field technics widely available in the world for weeding, mulching, irrigation and harvesting, re-model the factories to sterile, continuous production plants, we could make the Tea plantation industry a true asset of the nation. A good example on field technology can be learnt from the Rooibos plantations. Japan tea industry use such technology in the field even on steep mountains and the manufacturing plants are virtual food factories with in-house laboratory providing the guidelines and controls for manufacture with minimum labour,” he added.

Fernando says what is needed today is a shift and politicians to give direction and implement policy with a strong backbone.