Climate Change hampered the tea production in India
News Credit- Bijoyeta Das, Al Jazeera:
As global temperatures inch upward, all tea-producing belts are being affected, says RM Bhagat, deputy director of the Tea Research Association, based in Tocklai. “But the degree of impact varies regionally, depending on distance from equator and other local conditions.”
The Tocklai tea experimental station has been recording daily weather and tea production data for more than 100 years. “We have found that the minimum temperature has risen by 1.5 degree centigrade, and the annual rainfall has reduced by 200 millimetres,” he says.
The region is battered with erratic rainfall and frequent bouts of floods and droughts. Winter rainfall has become scarce, and distribution is fluctuating. Bhagat says tea trees in Assam previously would be high yielding until 40-45 years of age, but now decline at 30-35.
“Only time will say whether the tea trees will adapt or not, but the industry has to gear up,” he says. He recommends increasing shaded areas, alternative water systems, and using organic manure. The association is also testing clones that are resistant to climate change, he adds.
Weather plays spoilsport
“Assam always had sub-tropical climate, but now it has become fully tropical – affecting production,” explains Prafulla Bordoloi, a tea scientist
In Assam, the usual ambient temperature used to be below 35 degrees Celsius. But now the range has shot up to 38 to 40 degrees C in shaded areas, and upwards of 50 degrees C in non-shaded spots. Photosynthesis slows at 35 degrees C, and beyond 39 degrees C food production stops. After 48 degrees C, tealeaves stop breathing and are destroyed, he says. “Often one-third of the gardens have no shade.”
Prolong dry spells disturbs the flushing pattern. Along with stunted growth, increased dampness has led to an upsurge in pests. “Minor pests have become major pests. There is a spike in bugs such as the tea mosquito,” Bordoloi says.
Regulation of pesticide use and environmental concerns complicate the problem. “Planters are faced with hard choices,” he adds.
In 2010, Assam produced 480 million kilograms of tealeaves and 588 million kg in 2012. But this increase was attributed to an expansion in the area of production.
“Tea production from organised or corporate sector is stagnant, but that of small growers and bought leaf sector is increasing rapidly,” says S Patra, joint secretary of Indian Tea Association, based in Kolkata. He says Assam tea faces “stiff competition” from Sri Lanka and Kenya.
Small tea growers contribute about 30 percent of total tea production in Assam, says Aswwini Baruah, president of Assam Small Tea Growers Association.
“Small tea growers don’t have the resources to deal with climate change, but our tea trees are young, so our production is increasing, and we have not suffered loss,” he says.
Apart from the change in climate, there are other factors affecting quality and plummeting prices, says Surajit Phukan, director of Eastern Tea Brokers Association. An increase in migration of labourers to high-paying sectors has resulted in a shortage of tealeave pluckers. Random and excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers has dented Assam’s tea reputation on the international market.
Further, more factories are opting to process purchased leaves so the overall quantity of good Assam tea declines.
“It’s a catch-22 situation for the planter – you need purchased leaves to reduce costs, and you need to make better teas to earn good prices,” Phukan says.
During the 1980s, the Assam tea industry shifted its focus from quality to quantity to cater to the growing global demand for tea, he says. “Many high yielding clones were used, but flavour was lost.”
Phukan says it is a challenging time for the tea industry.
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