The appeal of India’s bountiful tea harvest, left, will diminish without compliance.
By Gita Narrayani
Pesticide residue presents a formidable hurdle for every tea growing land with export ambitions.
Since 2012 activists, led by Greenpeace, have focused media attention on the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides, some of which have been banned for decades. The result is heightened concern in Europe, Japan, and North America, top export destinations that routinely turn away tons of tea imports that exceed maximum residue levels (MRLs).
Last August Greenpeace India released an investigative research report titled “Trouble Brewing” that revealed widespread use of pesticides as evidenced by residues in tea sold in the domestic market. The report implicated 8 of 11 major players in branded tea.
“During the period June 2013 through May 2014 Greenpeace sampled 49 branded packaged teas from 8 of the top 11 companies that market domestically. Many of these companies also export tea to Russia, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, the United States, and Canada. A total of 34 pesticides were found in 46 of the 49 samples and 29 of the total contained residues indicating a cocktail of more than 10 different pesticides. One sample contained residues of 20 different pesticides. Some of which are banned,” reported World Tea News.
The danger handling and ingesting these pesticides is well documented but harm resulting from contact with largely inactive and largely insoluble residue is less clear.
A similar study published by Greenpeace in April 2012 revealing pesticide residues in Chinese tea–some from banned chemicals–led to quiet reform.
India responded with a furor that threatens the very existence of Greenpeace in that country. In April the Indian government, citing violations of its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), found that the NGO has “prejudicially affected the public interests and economic interests of the country in violation” of FCRA.
Use of the company’s domestic bank accounts was blocked and penalties levied, placing in jeopardy the jobs of 340 employees and the cessation of its campaigns for sustainable development.
Greenpeace India executive director Samit Aich said the organization will “fight MHA’s indefensible decision to block our domestic accounts” which contain donations from 77,000 Indian citizens.
“Why are 340 people facing the loss of their jobs? Is it because we talked about pesticide-free tea, air pollution, and a cleaner, fairer future for all Indians?” Aich told the Times of India.
In May the Home Ministry further recommended that a domestic tax exemption be withdrawn for Greenpeace donors. The 50% deduction for NGOs is a provision of the Income Tax Act.
The action against Greenpeace is part of a crackdown on NGOs that led the government to cancel the licenses of nearly 9,000 entities for alleged FCRA violations.
The Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI), representing the agrochemical industry, subsequently filed a criminal defamation case against Greenpeace that will be heard in June.
“Greenpeace India and its members have made several defamatory statements against the tea industry as well as pesticides industry in the defamatory report,” according to the complaint as reported by DNA India. “These remarks are highly defamatory to the manufacturers and marketers of pesticides in India who have suffered loss of reputation amongst their buyers, distributors and the public at large.”
Greenpeace responded that “The purpose behind the report is to portray the use of pesticides at the farm level and also at the processed and packaged level in tea which millions of Indians consume every day since we are deeply concerned with the health and well-being of Indian consumers and also the sustainability of production in the tea sector which employs hundreds of thousands of small growers. There is absolutely no motive or intent to defame or harm the Indian tea industry.”
Tea industry response
As expected, the study elicited a swift response from the industry’s apex body, the Tea Board. Though the average Indian consumer of tea was not affected or even aware of the Greenpeace findings, it did have an impact on the image and reputation of Indian tea in the export market and among the stakeholders in countries that favor Indian tea, according to the board.
The Tea Board and the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA) emphasized that Indian tea is subjected to extremely strict parameters, even by global standards. The Tea Board is also committed to identifying and advocating for even higher standards by partnering with the industry on a scientific pilot that will ascertain the feasibility of non-synthetic plant protection formulations for tea cultivation.
Tata Global Beverages (TGB) issued a statement that the company is “committed to sustainable beverage production and consumption. Our sustainable sourcing strategy is focused on sustainable agricultural practices and describes our principles and our code of conduct in purchasing raw materials for our manufacturing units.” Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) also stressed the safety of its brands. The company released ‘Guidelines on the Use of Pesticides in Sustainable Tea Sourcing’ in March 2014 and made a commitment to incorporate crop protection methods that did not rely on chemical pesticides. HUL had also set up HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) processes in all the factories. Both companies intend to gradually phase out reliance on chemical pesticides altogether and obtain 100% of their tea from sustainable sources. TGB and HUL are the market leaders in the branded tea segment.
There are several programs initiated by the Tea Board together with other partners to ensure that the final product is considered safe for human consumption. Tea estates have adopted these practices and implementation has been in line with both national and international parameters. These initiatives include the Plant Protection Code, The India Tea Code or Trustea Code, the Rainforest Alliance, and others.
Workers applying pesticides.
Plant Protection Code
Tea leaves are incredibly delicate and must be shielded from a variety of pests in their journey from the plantation to the tea cup.
The ‘Plant Protection Code’ delineates the correct utilization of the various plant protection products and also the stringent methods that need to be followed to ensure that pesticide residues are kept within permissible limits. The guidelines give tea growers the roadmap to review their usage of Plant Protection Formulations (PPF’s) periodically, so that these can be monitored and reduced to the extent possible.
The safe implementation of the plant protection techniques helps the growers to ultimately decrease dependence on such formulations, thereby making the transition to better types of protection possible within a stipulated time frame.
The Trustea Code
The Trustea India Sustainability Tea Program was developed to evaluate the social, economic, agronomic, and environmental performance of the tea estates, smallholders and the bought leaf factories in India.
A code development committee comprising of Solidaridad, IDH, HUL, and The Rainforest Alliance/SAN developed the first draft of the code based on Indian realities and existing legal provisions. Information was also taken from existing global parameters set by associations like the Rainforest Alliance (RFA), Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), UTZ Certified, and the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code.
Adherence to the code’s provisions enhances the tea’s competetiveness in world markets and ensures that the nation’s tea estates move towards more sustainable practices in line with national and international parameters. The norms enumerated under 11 chapters with mandatory compliance in four years. The Tea Board’s is partnering with IDH, Hindustan Unilever Limited, Tata Global Beverages, The Rainforest Alliance, the Solidaridad Network, and the ETP.
The program envisions verification of 600 factories, covering 500,000 workers and 40,000 small holders.
The latter are essential as smallholders are the fastest growing producers at 42%. The segment is expected to produce 50% of India’s tea within 10 years.
Trustea incorporates ETP and RFA standards and also food safety norms prevalent in the country. Trustea also incorporate the Tea Board’s Plant Protection Code (PPC). Under the Trustea Program, six pilot projects have been launched across the country to demonstrate the sustainability of tea cultivation using the more bio-friendly methods outlined in the PPC and the Trustea code.
Verification insures “quality, protection of the environment, food safety, better livelihood to workers and employees and the stakeholders- buyers and consumers”, according to R. K. Babaycon coordinator of the Trustea Program.
The majority of India's tea is hand plucked.
Cultivation without pesticides
The Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) based in the southern city of Secunderabad is a pioneer in plant protection without chemical pesticides. Many farmers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh already adhere to these practices. The hazardous implications from the use of chemical pesticides, together with the damaging impact on the final produce have resulted in the introduction of crop-friendly initiatives.
Collaboration between public institutions, NGO’s and farmers has given rise to a novel and more sustainable model of development. The new methodology has “an ecological approach to pest management using knowledge and skill-based practices to prevent insects from reaching damaging stages and damaging proportions by making best use of local resources, natural processes and community action.”
CSA formulated this eco-friendly approach, which is viewed as the way forward for smallholders throughout the world. The aspects of food purity, pesticide residues, soil and environment protection and the safety and security of the small farmers are safeguarded by the adoption of non-pesticide farming technologies. Ecological practices that enhance productivity, conserve soil health and fertility and also take note of crucial issues like climate change are brought into the normal processes of agriculture, with the active cooperation of the farming community.
Minding the maximum residue limits
Until recently, pesticide residues and their permissible levels throughout India were in line with those prescribed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Indian tea companies continue to comply with these guidelines, but recently began adhering to more rigorous standards for MRLs established by other countries, especially Japan and those in the EU/EEC.
While implementation will not be easy for India’s tea exporters, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of meeting the parameters set by these countries. The tea industry, together with The Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee, the Government of India and the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) continuously monitor the use of pesticides and with the Trustea program have established a method for compliance.
Greenpeace merely rang the alarm.
India was already deeply engaged in the challenging task of developing alternatives to chemical pesticides and in helping growers understand the proper use and impact of pesticides to bring about the necessary changes.