10 August 2014

Pesticide Documentation in Tea estates © Vivek M / Greenpeace


It’s a wet, lazy Saturday afternoon. I stretch under the covers before I pull myself up, and get the newspaper. And make myself a cup of tea. Piping hot with a sprig of mint, just the way I like it. The thought of the weekend ahead, while I enjoy the refreshing aroma, and the warmth between my hands makes me smile like a Cheshire Cat. Nothing could ruin this day for me, or could it?

I get a call from someone in the laboratory telling me that the results of the tea samples we had sent for testing about a fortnight back were out, and that I could find them in my inbox. As part of the Food and Agriculture team at Greenpeace India, we were aware of the gravity of the pesticides issue, and despite the growing number of stories, we wanted to test it for ourselves. We wanted to comb out all the possible pesticides that could be found in a range of products we were scoping. And this one tested for 358 pesticides in tea. These results this morning, was the best chance for us to rule out the possibilities of pesticides in tea, or confirm them.

What We Found In The Top Indian Tea Brands

Barring a sample here or there, nothing looked good. This didn’t feel right. There were a handful of pesticides in some cases, and in a number of cases over a dozen. This was in June of 2013. Following this, we did two more rounds of testing samples across 4 Indian cities, totalling up to 49 pesticides. This is sort of a summary of what the results threw up:

  • 46 of the 49 samples of branded tea or 94% of the samples contained residues of at least one pesticide.
  • There were 34 pesticides found across the different brands.
  • 29 of the samples contained ‘cocktails’ of more than 10 different pesticides.
  • The chaotic and conflicting state of regulations in India regarding authorisation of pesticides makes it extremely difficult to draw clear conclusions. However, 68% of the 34 pesticides found in the various samples appear not to be registered for use in the cultivation of tea in India.
  • Monocrotophos, a suspected mutagen and neurotoxicant, found in 27 samples across tea brand.
  • Another unapproved toxic pesticide, Triazophos, was found in five samples.
  • DDT, which is banned for use in agriculture in India since 1989, Cypermethrin, a respiratory irritant, and Imidacloprid has shown the potential to cause reproductive or developmental impacts in animals were found in at least 60% or more of the samples.
  • Neonicotinoid insecticides were present in a large proportion of samples (for example, Thiacloprid at 67.3% and Thiamethoxam at 78%).

Read the Trouble Brewing - report, Greenpeace India released today, which talks about the situation with the tea industry in India.

Moving Away From The Pesticides Treadmill

Sure, things look grim. But there’s a way out of this. And for this, the entire industry needs to clean up. Unilever, the biggest in the tea industry has taken decisive and forward looking action by investing in alternatives to chemical pesticides. While TGBL has taken tiny steps, the approach is the same old, which has failed time and again. In order to move away from pesticides, a holistic approach needs to be adopted. Non Pesticidal Management has worked in other crops in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, and with some research the industry, it if has the will can certainly find a way out the pesticides treadmill, which the tea Industry seems to be stuck on.

This entails moving away from the substitution approach, that removes one pesticide and replaces it with another. Instead, it involves, rejuvenating the soil, ensuring soil health, understanding plant physiology, and understanding entomology or the lifecycles of the insects, which predate on the tea bushes. It’s akin to ensuring a healthy human who does not need medication on a regular basis. So one improves the immunity of the tea bushes, and ensures regular and proper nutrition is made available through healthy soil. That makes it a rock solid foundation, which is unshakeable under changing weather conditions, diseases and the like. This has also been observed in the case of tea. It’s possible, and real.

What Can Companies Do?

Greenpeace believes that as buyers of tea, they have an immense influence over the plantation owners, and can influence what kind of tea they are willing to buy.

Bigger companies can invest in research projects to find ways to move away from the pesticides treadmill.

Smaller companies could come together, and with their collective purchasing power influence the plantation owners in terms of the tea cultivated.

No doubt, the Tea Board and the Small Tea Growers given their hold on the market, should take steps in the right direction, thereby assisting the industry to move away from pesticides.

Together, I haven’t an iota of doubt, that we can move away from this pesticides addiction, and place the Indian tea industry on the global map as pioneers of a clean drink.

We are not asking companies to pay an arm and a leg, but as a starting point pledge to their consumers that they are resolved to work with producers/plantation owners to work ways to ensure Clean Chai Now.

I don’t want to give up my cup of tea, and I am sure, you don’t either. But as consumers and citizens of this planet, we want companies to promise us Clean Chai. Are companies willing to place people and the environment before profits? Let’s ask them.

To read the report, click here.

Shivani Shah is a campaigner with Greenpeace India.