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Go organic but mind the cost

- Tea meet mulls ways to healthy brew

Jorhat, Jan. 8: Organic tea is the way to go but it should also be cost effective, a national seminar held here today stressed.

The general consensus at the inaugural session of the seminar — the third in a series organised by Tea Research Association in collaboration with the Tea Board at Tocklai Experimental Station to finetune practices for development of organic tea in India — was that it is pure, healthy, eco-friendly and marketable.

However, a pitch was made for research to focus on a middle path to ensure that organic tea production is cost-effective and sustainable, especially for the Northeast which produces the bulk of Indian teas.

Stressing this, P.K. Bezboruah, additional vice-chairman, Tea Research Association, said he was not against organic tea but it should be sustainable to the industry as a whole.

He said changing over from conventional to organic farming would entail a drop in production by 30 to 40 per cent in the initial three to four years. This cannot be afforded in Assam, which produces the bulk of tea in the country.

“No doubt organic food is healthy to the consumer and has good marketable practices but we have a seven billion world population and by going organic we may not have the land to grow crops and in the process destroy all the forest that is left,” he warned.

“Organic farming has its plus points and pitfalls and should not be viewed as the panacea,” Bezboruah said.

“At the Inter-governmental Group on Tea held at Ottawa in 1998, India and China had been given one project each to find a package of practices for organic tea. While China got off to a start the next year itself and already has a package of practices, India started more than seven years later which just shows how difficult the changeover is,” he said.

Bezboruah called for a sustainable technology, which would draw upon organic technologies and integrate conventional practices.

A concern for the tea industry is the heavy load of pesticides usually prevalent in conventional farming. Sources said to bring down this load, organic researchers should see how organic pesticides like crushed neem juice can be applied to conventional farming practices.

R.M. Bhagat, deputy director, TRA, had earlier pointed out that a package of organic practices would have to be found for new and existing tea gardens. In this context, G. Boriah, director, tea development, Tea Board of India, said there were reservations in the tea industry about how commercially viable conversion of existing gardens would be.

“Organic tea production should also be cost effective. More manpower is required for producing organic tea and applying bio-fertilisers. We should look into how cost can be equal to conventional agriculture and what can be subsidised to kickstart the organic process,” Boriah said.

B. Bera, director of research, Tea Board of India, sought unconditional exchange of information between planters and scientists if organic tea should get off to a good start.

Arun Singh, vice-chairman of TRA and chairman of ITA, said his tea estate in the south showed a profit only after he went organic. He said he had used an integrated method where compost was produced in the tea garden itself.

TRA director N. Muraleedharan said organic tea was much in demand in the world market with an annual market increase of 20-25 per cent.