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Darjeeling tea goes organic

Growers of the world’s most expensive tea are going organic due to pressure from international buyers and a need to preserve the soil
Tea plucker at Makaibari tea estate (Image: Gurvinder Singh)
Tea plucker at Makaibari tea estate (Image: Gurvinder Singh)

Darjeeling tea is going organic. Planters switching over claim that organic production helps maintain soil fertility, even if it means lower production. Others say the planters are under pressure from buyers in developed countries.

Darjeeling tea is famed for its lightness and aroma, and is in demand across the globe. Around 80% of the nearly 9,000 tonnes of tea produced annually in Darjeeling, West Bengal and surrounding areas in the Himalayas is exported to Germany, Japan, the USA, UK and other developed countries.

Urgent need for soil conservation

“Out of the 74 tea gardens operational in Darjeeling district, around 50 have completely turned to organic production,” Sandeep Mukherjee, principal adviser to the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), told The Third Pole. “The rest are still following conventional methods or partly doing organic cultivation.” DTA has a membership of 63 tea gardens.

“Over the years, tea garden managements began to feel the adverse impact of global warming as tea mosquito bugs and looper caterpillars started attacking the tea plants [at higher altitudes],” Mukherjee added.

“Some pests like the red spider, which was normally found at low altitudes, were seen at the height of 5,000 metres. Global warming also led to rainfall becoming erratic and washing away the topsoil. Planters who were using chemicals decided to shift to organic farming to prevent soil erosion and preserve the topsoil by planting trees in the gardens.”

A tea leaf plucker at her job (image by Gurvinder Singh)
A tea leaf plucker at work (Image: Gurvinder Singh)

A study carried out by the Darjeeling Tea Research and Development Centre found a temperature rise of 0.51 degrees Celsius from 1993 to 2012. Annual rainfall fell by 152.50 cm (total annual rainfall varies between 226.64 to 558.03 cm) and relative humidity by 16.07%.

Increased use of chemicals began 50 years ago

Researchers say the rampant use of chemicals in tea gardens began in the 1960s, when farms faced a drop in production due to ageing tea bushes.

“Production began to fall as the tea bushes had survived for over 100 years [when tea plantation began in the region]. It would require at least 10 years to replace the bushes. But the producers felt this would mean severe losses. They resorted to the use of chemicals that enhanced the life expectancy of bushes by another 20-25 years but destroyed the soil ecosystem,” Malay Bhattacharya, assistant professor in the department of tea science at the University of North Bengal, told The Third Pole.

“The presence of chemicals causes health complications by affecting the liver, kidneys and also leads to neurological problems, as tea is the only commodity that is not washed before consumption,” Bhattacharya added. “The garden owners began to realise the dangers of using excessive chemicals and decided to shift to organic farming.”

Tea being processed at the factory of Makaibari tea estate (image: Gurvinder Singh)
Tea being processed at the factory of the Makaibari tea estate (Image: Gurvinder Singh)

Makaibari, established in 1857, is the oldest tea garden in the world. It was the first to get an organic certification in 1988. The 248-hectare garden produces 100,000 kg per year, around 60% of which is exported.

“We make biodynamic vermicompost using plant stems, citronella plants, Guatemalan gamagrass, weeping lovegrass and different types of legumes,” Sanjay Das, estate manager at Makaibari, told The Third Pole. “It includes cow dung to make organic food for plants. Cow manure is also applied directly in the soil under the tea bush. We use insect repellent spray made of herbs on the field. These do not kill the insects but scare them away.”

Sanjay Das, estate manager of Makaibari tea estate showing BD Vermicompost (image: Gurvinder Singh)
Sanjay Das, estate manager of Makaibari tea estate, points to biodynamic vermicompost (Image: Gurvinder Singh)
Bio Dynamic Vermicompost at Makaibari tea estate (image: Gurvinder Singh)
Bio dynamic vermicompost at Makaibari tea estate (Image: Gurvinder Singh)

Return of biodiversity

Planters claim the change to organic tea farming is restoring biodiversity in the gardens. “The biodiversity had almost gone extinct but now we are finding a change,” said Naresh Parekh, plantation manager of Tumsong, another tea garden.

“We can spot sparrows, deer, hornbills, leopards and an overall increase in flora and fauna. The tall trees not only provide shade to the tea bushes but also offer shelter for birds and prevent soil erosion. They have also increased the water-holding capacity of the soil and maintain the fertile topsoil. Besides, certain medical herbs which are used by the locals for treatment are also available. We have been witnessing a significant change over the past six-seven years.”

Not all tea planters are ready to go organic

“Most of the tea gardens that claim to have turned organic are doing just 5% in a natural way,” said Himangshu Kumar Shaw, owner of Giddapahar tea garden, also in Darjeeling. “The soil has already been destroyed by conventional farming for over a century and nothing is left in it. The hills do not have sufficient supply of lactating cows and other plants used for preparing organic food. It’s all eyewash to attract foreign buyers.”

Shaw pointed out that it takes three to four years for the chemicals to leach out and to get an organic certification. Meanwhile, the costs of this labour-intensive industry remain the same. “If garden owners are making profits by selling organic tea, then why are some of them on sale, have shut operations or are running in losses?” he said.

Darjeeling tea production has fallen from a high of 14,000 tonnes in 1992 to 8,800 tonnes in 2020. The number of gardens has decreased from 87 to 74 due to mergers and closures.

Some deny pressure as reason for going organic

Those who have gone organic deny that it was due to pressure from buyers abroad. “The producers began to realise that the quality of tea was getting compromised in conventional farming as soil was stretched beyond [its] limit to increase production that was destined to yield diminishing returns in the long run,” Krishnendu Chatterjee, chief operating officer of Darjeeling Organic Tea Estates, told The Third Pole.

A tea plucker stands among the bushes (image: Gurvinder Singh)
A tea plucker stands among the bushes (image: Gurvinder Singh)

“Organic farming is feasible because it brings higher returns and helps conserve the soil.” The company Chatterjee works for runs 14 tea gardens in Darjeeling and two in Assam.

“It is a myth that organic switchover leads to a drop in production,” Chatterjee added. “We have evidence in Darjeeling, where production has increased drastically. It all depends upon the condition of the soil. We have also found tea pluckers working in organic gardens to be healthier.”

A 2017 study by a student at Sweden’s Umea University found environmental and health benefits of growing organic tea at Makaibari.

Enough organic fertiliser available

Planters say there is no shortage of organic fertiliser. Jeetendra Malu, president of DTA, told The Third Pole: “There is no plucking of leaves for three months [December to February]. That’s when the tea bushes are being cleaned, pruned and mulched. Organic material is released by this process. The gardens become organic by default. We also use castor cake [a natural nitrogen fertiliser]. They are in good supply.”

According to Malu, “The major problem for Darjeeling tea is the increasing competition from Nepal. The 100-day lockdown in 2017 due to unrest in Darjeeling helped the Nepal tea gardens capture our markets. We are in the process of recapturing the markets.”

The undecided

Jungpana is a 142-hectare tea garden that has gone organic, except for 19 hectares. Rajiv Kumar, the deputy general manager, said the escalating cost of production and lack of buyers makes it difficult to turn completely organic.

“Darjeeling tea is known for its first flush, which is a premium tea. But there’s also the monsoon flush from mid-July to mid-October that doesn’t get good prices. We are compelled to put our tea on auction and even sell at less than the production cost. It discourages the planters as the cost of going completely organic is already high because of low production.”

However, Kumar said, even gardens that have not gone organic have reduced the amount of chemicals they use. “Global buyers will not accept tea if it [the amount of chemicals] crosses the maximum residue levels [laid down].”