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TEA Wants to Import tea: why


17 November 2017 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Two articles in Daily Mirror on tea (Nov 9 by M.J. Fernando Nov. 10 by Tea Exporters Association (TEA) highlight the controversy on importation of tea. As Mr Fernando has said importing tea, and blending it with local Ceylon Tea will bring down the quality of Ceylon Tea and may cause prices to decrease. TEA appears to be of the opinion that the growth of the tea sector is restricted by non-availability of adequate quantities of tea and hence, TEA has proposed to liberalize tea imports to address the declining trend in the country’s tea export share. 


According to the Central Bank reports around 200,000 ha are under tea. As indicated in the table the total production of tea has continued to decrease from 340 million kg in 2013 to 292 million kg in 2016 although TEA says that the tea production has stagnated around 330 million kg. The amount of tea exports too has decreased during the last few years. In 2014 we exported 327 million kg but this value has decreased to 289 million kg in 2016 . As indicated in the table, foreign exchange earnings from tea have continued to decrease in spite of some tea being imported for re-exports. As indicated in the article by TEA, Sri Lanka’s share in the world tea market has come down from 10.5 % in 2000 to 6% in 2016 and this is likely to go down further and the country will not achieve the expected foreign exchange targets. All these data indicate that there is something wrong in our tea sector.  
According to TEA in the article of Nov. 10 there is no accepted plan to increase tea production and hence propose to increase liberalization of tea imports to address the declining tea exports. In such a situation it is better to formulate an effective plan to increase tea production in the country rather than importing lower quality tea and blending it with Ceylon Tea. Importing tea to be blended with Ceylon Tea will be detrimental to the tea sector as what happened to some other sectors such as Pepper in the recent past. TEA suggests that there should be a tea hub in Sri Lanka. When our tea production is going down and also when there is a strong tea hub in a central place such as Dubai, a proposal to have a tea hub is unrealistic. In the rubber sector too a unrealistic master plan involving US $ 500 million has been developed and is going to be implemented. 

Almost 90% of the tea produced in the country is exported. Hence, the opinion of TEA that the growth of the tea sector is restricted by non-availability of adequate quantities of tea is not correct. There may be a number of factors which caused our share in the world tea market to come down during the last few years. One of these is possibly high costs. It is necessary that a detail study is made to determine what factors cause our share in the world tea market to come down. 

An analysis of tea production levels in tea producing countries indicate that Sri Lanka has lagged behind. According to FAO statistics our average tea YPH in 2014 which stood at 1522 kg/ha is well below the average tea YPH of 25 countries such as Iran, Japan, Kenya, Vietnam . The success of the Kenyan tea industry has been ascribed to appropriate research and development (R&D) by the Kenya Tea Research Institute. The decline in the tea sector in Sri Lanka can be attributed to a number of factors. Among these are land degradation, shortage of water, old age crop etc. 

Land Degradation

Productivity of large extents under tea has decreased mainly due to soil erosion, soil compaction, and nutrition depletion etc, . Land degradation would cause yields to decline and have a negative impact on our efforts to increase production. A substantial extent of tea lands are eroded and there is hardy any soil for the tea plants grow. According to various reports around 40 t/ha of soil in tea estates are lost annually due to soil erosion. The participants of the first national symposium on Land Degradation, held a few years ago, who were representing many land-related institutions in the country, were of the view that urgent action such as implementation of proper land use planning and the soil conservation and environment act etc. need to be taken by the relevant organizations to control land degradation.

Age of tea plants

A considerable extent of the tea crop is mature and old. For example, 40% of the tea extent is under seedling tea and about 90% of the seedling teas are over 60 years old and need replanting. Around 30% of the VP tea are more than 30 years old and these also need replanting. Replanting had been neglected in the 1960’s and 1970’s partly because of low tea prices and high export duties and low profit margins . The area replanted does not show any substantial increase during the last few years. In fact, it has decreased from 2013. 

Water shortage

VP plants being having a fibrous system are unable to stand dry conditions. As a result production of tea goes down during the dry periods. This situation is worsened by soil erosion. It is possible to overcome this situation by activities such as increasing organic matter levels of the surface soils by mulching, reducing run-off, better water management etc. which would increase water holding capacity of the soil. Implementing appropriate rain-water harvesting programmes would reduce the undesirable effects of drought. 

 Labour shortage

It is a common knowledge that at present there is a dearth of labour in the tea sectors as in many other crop sectors. According to a labour force survey in 2000, 36 % of the labour force was working in the agriculture sector. In 2008 this value has dropped to 33% and in 2014 it has further dropped down to 29%. As a result of labour shortage weed control and other cultural practices and tea plucking are affected. 

 What should be done

There are tea lands in which the annual production is very low. For example, the average YPH of some estates owned by the state is as low as 358 kg. A survey need to be done to identify these unproductive tea lands, and these need to be diversified. Such lands may be put under pasture and have cattle . This will reduce our expenditure on milk imports, and also degradation of the lands will be reduced resulting in less silting of the reservoirs and reduce incidence of floods. There are many other crops such as spice crops etc. , energy yielding crops such as glyricida and fruit crops which could be cultivated on the unproductive tea lands. These crops would give better returns to the cultivators. An in-depth study need to be carried out to determine appropriate land use in the unproductive holdings/estates giving due consideration to factors such as climate, topography, availability of labour etc.   

Those tea lands which are not going to be diversified need to be managed better. In this regard, infilling, cultivation of better tea cultivars and their effective management including better fertilizer and pest management practices, , increased rate of replanting, reducing soil degradation and conservation practices are essential. The demand for tea bags appears to be increasing. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan the tea bag share has increased over and above the loose tea market. Hence, it is obvious that we need to promote production of tea bags.   

It is better to implement activities to increase the productivity of the tea sector rather than importing low quality tea thereby diluting the quality of our tea.   


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