Tea industry warns: Glyphosate ban damaging quality, productivity

The Talawakele Tea Estate in Nuwara Eliya. PICTURE: LAKE HOUSE MEDIA LIBRARY

The tea industry warned last week that the government’s ban on Glyphosate-based weedicides was causing “irreversible damage to quality and productivity of estates,” hurting companies and workers, and called for an immediate alternative to be provided.

The Planters Association of Ceylon (PA) said in a statement that crop losses were ‘devastating’ and cost in excess of an estimated Rs. 15 billion in the 18 months after the glyphosate ban.

The PA pleaded with the Government to immediately provide a “rational, and effective solution to the management of chemical weeding in the estate sector in a commercially viable manner.”

Agricultural productivity, particularly in the estate sector, has been undergoing “a slow and steady collapse” ever since the Government imposed a blanket ban on glyphosate-based weedicides in May 2015, it said.

PA Media Convener Roshan Rajadurai warned that if an alternative chemical weedicide able to match the commercially viability of glyphosate was not presented by the Government soon, the quality and productivity of Sri Lankan tea would be irreversibly compromised as a result of deteriorating ground conditions.

“Unfortunately, the situation is becoming extremely dire for the estate sector,” he said. “We have already faced with some of the worst weather in recent memory – from drought to deluge within a single year – and of course there are many other serious systemic challenges to grapple with.

“While we are doing our best to engage with stakeholders and work to build a new collective vision for the industry, we can no longer ignore the extremely detrimental impact that the ban is having on our industry. Time and again we have called on the Government to at least give us an alternative to glyphosate but, unfortunately there has been no response whatsoever. In the meantime, more estates are being overrun with weeds and this will continue unless the Government responds to reason immediately,” Rajadurai stated.

Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) had long ago adopted comprehensively integrated weed management systems and techniques – comprising biological, cultural, manual and chemical weeding techniques - on par, if not better than, international agricultural and plantation best practices, he said.

But chemical-based weedicides have remained a ‘necessity’ throughout, and the estate sector exercises extreme caution in the application of such chemicals during all phases of production, Rajadurai stressed.

This was partly because of the extremely stringent controls placed on Sri Lankan tea, which must maintain compliance with the standards of organisations such as the Forest Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance, and Ethical Tea Partnership standards on labour practices, agricultural techniques, fertilizers and chemical usage.

“From an international perspective, Sri Lankan tea is among the most ethically produced varieties of tea in the world and that valuable goodwill has been secured through a continuous process of monitoring and management of every step in the production of our tea. Between the numerous certification requirements and the regulatory standards of our export markets, we are required to maintain Minimum Residue Levels of chemicals within certain absolute limits simply to sell our tea in the first place,” Rajadurai said.

“Hence the idea that glyphosate-based weedicides must be totally banned in Sri Lanka to protect the people who come into close contact with the chemical, frankly, has little to no relevance in our industry. While Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) is a problem, there is no evidence whatsoever, not even anecdotally, to show that these chemicals have had negative health ramifications for our employees.

In fact on the weedicide issue there is totally unanimous agreement between the labour trade unions, the RPCs and all stakeholders and this by itself ought to be sufficient evidence to immediately re-examine this policy,” he asserted.

Rajadurai outlined how the immediate effects of the Government’s policy to ban glyphosate-based weedicides and its failure to provide any alternative, was ultimately being felt by the estate workers for whose benefit such policies were supposedly created.

“The overgrowth of weeds in the estates only makes it more difficult for our employees to simply traverse one section of the plantation to another, let alone harvest and maintain the tea bushes.

Increased undergrowth also creates an environment for more snakes and other predators. At every level, the glyphosate ban, is totally counter-productive and we again call on all policy makers to let sense prevail and a clear, rational alternative be provided immediately,” he said. 

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