Protecting the tea industry | Daily News

Protecting the tea industry

Most Sri Lankans and indeed many others, cannot begin the day without a hot “cuppa” which sets the tone for the hours ahead. And when you want a steaming cup of hot tea, there is only one option: Ceylon Tea.

Sri Lanka is known for its unique “Pure Ceylon Tea” which is exported worldwide. In fact, this year Sri Lanka is celebrating 150 years of producing high quality teas loved by connoisseurs all over the world. But a variety of factors have adversely affected tea production and exports, which can threaten the very survival of the industry if not resolved soon.

Sri Lanka once used to be the world’s biggest tea exporter, but these days are sadly gone. Sri Lanka’s share in world tea production has now come down to 6% from 10.5% in 2000, when local tea production hit the magical 300 million kg mark. The industry has not been able to achieve that number since then.

Exports for the period January – November 2017 reached 265 million kg, a figure even lower than last year’s drought restricted quantity of 266.1 million kg. The figure is also the lowest since 2000. Thankfully, export earnings are at a record high of Rs.213.8 billion or approximately US $ 1.4 billion due to higher tea prices in the global market place. Global tea production has increased steadily and recorded 5.4 million metric tons or 5.4 billion kg in 2016.

Though the decline in tea production last year and during the first quarter of this year is largely attributed to the adverse weather in the tea growing regions in the country, the overall downward trend in production was due to a number of other factors such as ageing tea bushes (on average over 80 years), non-availability of an alternative weedicide and the low application of fertilizer. The biggest problem seems to the lack of replanting as most smallholders and companies seem to be reluctant to wait 2-3 years for the harvest from a replanted plot. This unfortunately gives an advantage to competitors such as Kenya and Vietnam, which have relatively new plantations.

But all these problems become insignificant in the face of the biggest crisis to hit Ceylon Tea in recent memory. Russia, Sri Lanka’s second biggest tea customer, has placed temporary restrictions on imports of tea and all other agricultural products from Sri Lanka from December 18 after a beetle was found in a tea consignment. The insect, known as the Khapra beetle, was discovered in the packaging of the consignment of tea from Sri Lanka which prompted the Russian agriculture safety watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor to take this drastic and damaging step. Russia was the second largest buyer of Sri Lanka’s Ceylon tea after Iran in 2016 with US$ 143 million worth of purchases and Sri Lankan tea accounts for 23 percent of the Russian market.

If no immediate action is taken, this could turn out to be a crippling blow to the local tea industry. Our competitors must be delighted at this turn of events – it has already been reported that Kenya was exploring the possibility of stepping into the niche occupied by Sri Lanka vis-a-vis tea exports to Russia.

The Russian ban has galvanized our tea industry like never before. President Maithripala Sirisena has intervened personally, promising to take up the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rosselkhoznadzor seems to have sensed the urgency on Sri Lanka’s side and promised to talk with Sri Lankan tea experts before year end. The watchdog has already met a delegation led by Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Russia in Moscow on Tuesday and requested information about steps being taken in Sri Lanka to secure the safety of tea intended for export to Russia. Our officials in Russia have pointed out that it was an isolated case and that they would work with the Russian authorities to resolve the issue.

The issue highlights several shortcomings. Finding a beetle in a huge tea consignment may not be easy, but very strict quality control is a must, bearing in mind that most countries have stringent entry and quarantine standards for foreign agricultural products. We must also not depend too much on the traditional export markets (Russia, Iran, UAE, Libya, China, Japan, Syria) as this case illustrates. Finding new markets for our teas is essential and so is diversifying the product portfolio through further value addition and innovation. Last year, Sri Lanka exported 57 percent of all teas in value-added form. Contributing to the value-added segment, packet tea comprised 46 percent, tea bags 8 percent, instant tea 1 percent and green tea 2 percent.

There is a whole generation previously addicted to various carbonated drinks who are discovering the wonders and health benefits of tea anew. But we need to jazz up tea for this new generation that does not even want to wait five minutes until the tea brews. From bubble tea to tea tablets, they are looking for exciting new ways to consume tea. We too must keep pace to develop and protect the industry that gives us this “Elixir of the Gods”. 


 

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