15 September 2014

Pesticide Documentation in Tea estates © Vivek M. / Greenpeace


I still recall the image of activists, holding up for fifty hours on seven billboards, through the hot sun and the notorious Mumbai rains. I remember having a feeling of admiration for their perseverance, as I watched them stay strong many feet above the ground. You can’t help but think that it has to be a cause that affects them deeply that makes an individual leave his/her daily life and get on top of a billboard asking tea companies to, “Clean Chai Now.” And you bet, the cause was not only personal but mammoth; the activists were not only challenging the current paradigm of Indian tea cultivation but Indian agriculture as a whole which depends on chemical toxins that are a threat to consumer safety and farmer sustainability.

I would like to think that it could have been me on that billboard as I have a personal relationship with my chai and it has become a way of life for me like many other Indians. And when Greenpeace’s report, Trouble Brewing brought to light, toxic cocktail of pesticide residues in our favourite brands of tea, it was a matter of concern. The report also highlighted that pesticides not approved for tea cultivation were found in the samples, reflecting the fact, that regulating these toxins is not the answer to the problem.

Clearly the tea industry was missing the right solutions to move out of this pesticide treadmill as the report showed that older pesticides were replaced by newer ones like neonicotinoids.

The activists perched on those billboards for many hours together coupled with months of engagement that Greenpeace has had with tea companies, was to ensure that the industry stops ignoring the right solution. The right solution as Greenpeace would define is a scientific approach that is holistic and based on rejuvenating the ecosystem. It is a change in approach towards ecological agriculture, which no longer talks about reducing certain chemical pesticides and replacing them with others but it is a gradual elimination of all chemical pesticides, not overnight but through a road-map that has to be created keeping all stakeholders in mind. Greenpeace’s suggested approach will not only lead to ensuring a safe product to the consumer but also the long term sustainability of the tea sector.

This approach was acknowledged by most in the tea industry, but a true leader of the Indian tea market, Unilever (which holds 29% of the market share) took the first step in the direction of the right approach to phase out pesticides and invest in research on Non Pesticide Management. While Unilever’s journey to clean from crop to cup is long, this movement signals their commitment to their consumers. This was then followed by Girnar, a much smaller tea company with a market share of 1.8%, willing to support an alternative approach of Non Pesticide Management.

While all tea companies acknowledged the problem of pesticide residues in tea and their impact from crop to cup, not all of them have committed to a shift in paradigm. The biggest player in the tea sector after Unilever, Tata Global Beverages Ltd (TGBL) like others is willing to take steps to deal with the pesticide menace but unfortunately their vision is still to reduce pesticides rather than eliminate them completely. TGBL does mention using biological alternatives but this is more on the lines of “good to have” rather than the core of their approach.

Tata’s enjoy an image of trust and sustainability not only in India but also globally and their leading tea brand, Tata Tea is a household name and also associated with the social cause, Jaago Re. It is unfortunate that now Tata Tea is associated with a cocktail of pesticides, this makes it all the more important that TGBL wakes up and commits to phasing out pesticides from crop to cup.

A month has passed since the brave activists sent out a strong message to tea companies; clearly Unilever has taken the first step and shown leadership. It is only obvious that TGBL like Unilever, a big player in the tea sector, follows and also takes on leadership for a pesticide-free future of Indian tea as that will be the expectation from their consumers.

Click here to tell TATA to give us pesticide-free tea!

Statement by Unilever: http://www.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/image/2014/cocktail/download/04082014%20CABI%20Research%20Press%20Release-1.pdf

Statement by Girnar: http://www.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/image/2014/cocktail/download/Girnar.pdf

Statement by TGBL: http://www.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/image/2014/cocktail/download/guidelines-on-plant-protection-formulations-(ppf).pdf

Neha Saigal is a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India.