Taking Ceylon Tea into the Future
Ceylon Tea, celebrating 150 years, has experienced much advancement through research and development. Dr Sarath Abeysinghe, Director and CEO, Tea Research Institute and Dr Sarath Samaraweera, Chartered Engineer and Consultant Technologist, speak about the future of Ceylon Tea.
By Yomal Senerath-Yapa and Keshini de Silva | Photography Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham
What are the latest technological advancements in the Sri Lankan tea industry?
Dr Sarath Abeysinghe (SA): The research and development of new tea varieties has been one of the key research thrusts at the Tea Research Institute (TRI). In the 1950s the TRI released the first set of vegetative propagation tea cultivars namely the TRI 2000 series. In the 1990s TRI released TRI 3000 and 4000 series cultivars. Initially in our breeding programme the major focus was to increase tea yields, enhance quality and later on the development of varieties resistant to various pests and diseases. However, with climate change becoming a concern we were aiming at developing drought resistant tea varieties. As a result of our successful breeding programme our new TRI 5000 series, which we hope to release in 2017 will have drought resistant characteristics in addition to other important features such as high yield, quality as well as being pest and disease resistant. Currently, the TRI 5000 series is being tested in various agroclimatic regions in tea growing regions.
Many technological advancements in terms of tea cultivar development, seeds, rehabilitation of tea plants and fertility have taken place.
The development of a new tea variety usually takes around 20 years. Research methods at the TRI today uses tissue culture techniques successfully to reduce the time period by at least six years thereby saving cost and time to develop new cultivars. Also, research is ongoing to use molecular biology techniques to further reduce the time taken to develop new cultivars.
At the same time, we developed new and improved biclonal and polyclonal tea seeds to withstand extreme climatic conditions. These new improved seeds give reasonable yields and are suitable for marginal tea lands. Cultivation of tea for very long periods had resulted degraded lands and these seeds will perform well in such lands.
Soil fertility and health play an important role in tea cultivation and therefore research and development (R&D) at the TRI is aimed at developing technologies to improve fertiliser use and to also reduce the use of artificial fertiliser. As a result, biofertiliser formulations were introduced to the tea industry. The use of these biofertilisers reduce the use of artificial fertiliser thereby reducing the cost of production, saving foreign exchange and safeguarding the environment. Thus is ensures the tea cultivation is sustainable. On a similar line of research, TRI worked with the Nanotechnology Institute to develop a slow releasing fertiliser formulation based on nanotechnology. Due to the condition of our tea soils and the changing climate a significant amount of fertiliser applied on soil is wasted. The nanotechnology based fertiliser formula will reduce the waste of fertiliser, improve tea yields while safeguarding the environment.
The TRI recommends integrated pest management approach to manage pests and diseases in tea fields, which include manual processes, chemicals and the following of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs).
The cultivation of tea is a very labour intensive operation. We have seen a significant drop in our labour force over the years. In order to address this issue, it is necessary to mechanise tea agronomic practices. Therefore one of the areas of research at TRI is to develop or test the existing machines for our tea industry. TRI has introduced devises for tea harvesting over the years and under a special programme lunched by the government TRI is in the process of popularising the mechanisation of agronomic practices, especially amongst tea small holders.
We are also conducting research on the possibility of reducing the soil rehabilitation period. When a tea plant surpasses its economical life span (50-60 years for upcountry and 30-40 years in the low country) it is necessary to uproot these plants and replace them with new plants. Grass should be grown in these identified fields for 18 months prior to the replanting of tea and once the planting is done it will take another three to four years before harvesting. During this period, growers do not receive any income. In order to address this issue, the TRI develop a Soil Quality Index (SQI), which can be used to determine the quality and fertility of the soil. If the required level of soil quality is there growers could avoid the rehabilitation period. The SQI is being validated at present.
Research work done on value addition using new technology at TRI resulted in an instant tea with high quality, tea protein with high nutrition value. We are in the process of commercialising these products.
The agricultural industry as whole is being pressured to reduce the use of weedicides and insecticides. What are your thoughts on this?
SA: The TRI recommends integrated pest management approach to manage pests and diseases in tea fields, which include manual processes, chemicals and the following of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). As you can see agrochemicals must be used alongside other practices to reduce the usage of chemicals. TRI recommended pesticides for tea plantations after careful screening and these recommendations ensure that our teas conform to the standards required by importing countries. The banning of certain pesticides has an impact of the tea cultivation as we do not have alternative cost effective chemicals. TRI is in the process of screening new weedicides which are less toxic and less harmful to the environment.
What are the challenges faced by the industry today?
Dr Sarath Samaraweera (SS): Low productivity of our land is the main issue as aconsequence our cost of production is high. As wages goes up, cost increases and we have no option but to mechanize to manage the cost. Though the national target for replanting is approximately two per cent of the extent per annum, the achieved rate is much lower than one per cent. As a result, tea plants are getting older The productive age of a plant in low country is about 20 years. At 25 you have to replant. That does not happen as a substantial amount of money is needed for the grower to survive. We need about 4.5 million rupees to replant one hectare and- for a period of about three to four years. growers cannot invest because they are cash tight. Government subsidies for replanting are far from sufficient. Before replanting you have to do rehabilitation of the land. During that period, they have no income from that land, as such a substantial amount of buffer money is needed for the grower to survive. The government will have to consider a package to look after the financial needs of the grower during this period. Or else, it would be difficult to meet our replanting targets.
Then comes the issue of labour. 60 -70 per cent of the work force is involved in plucking. With wages rising and labour becoming increasingly scarce, we find it very difficult to maintain the quality of the leaf. For the producer to get a better profit, we have to produce better tea, which require a better standard of leaf. Therefore, when mechanising, we want to pluck fine leaf as well as reduce expense. Any future work on mechanisation must combine these two needs. Sri Lanka will have to continue to be a high quality tea producer while managing cost.
An example of our value addition products is our attempt to enhance the not so satisfactory quality of instant tea through membrane fusion technology.
The per year net income of an average smallholding is approximately 70,000 rupees, not at all adequate to run a family. Therefore, migration of small holders is inevitable. In the years to come, the way I see, there will be much more cooperative type of systems developing within the small holder groups where people will work more efficiently. That will help everyone in moving forward.
Another issue is engineering. Sri Lanka used to export tea machinery upto about the 1980s. Then we had excellent plantation engineering organisations. But today in our country this sector is extremely weak. We are depending primarily on machinery coming from India, China or Japan. One reason is there are no inducements for the plantation engineering industry to develop in this country. We cannot recruit good engineers to the plantation sector. For engineering R&D work to become strong the sector has to be strong as well.
If the engineering sector is strong, then young engineers with required qualifications and enthusiasm can be recruited and they will produce more efficient techniques and machinery. Unfortunately, presently young engineers graduating from university do not consider plantations as an interesting field.
SA: Climate change will have serious impact on our tea plantations. Using the past meteorological data TRI mapped out the most vulnerable tea growing areas to climatic change. These findings could be used when taking policy decisions on land use as well as to take mitigation measures as per TRI recommendations. The TRI developed a model which can be used to predict tea production, changes in pests and disease incidences under climate change scenarios so that the growers can be prepared in advance to face these challenges.
Another focus areas is the impact of energy conservation. It is necessary to develop technology to conserve both electrical and thermal energy as the cost of the electricity and fuelwood is high and also to produce tea in a sustainable manner. TRI has introduced devises to use energy in an efficient manner thereby reducing the electricity consumption in tea factories. To address fuel wood scarcity TRI prepared a comprehensive report and submitted to relevant authorities to take policy decisions to promote grilicidia as the fourth plantation crop to provide energy to tea factories.
Is there any research being done regarding the health benefits of tea?
SA: The TRI has a research thrust on the health benefits of tea. In the past research on health benefits was mainly focused on green tea. TRI started its R&D programme on health benefits of black tea in 1990s and generated significant amount of information such as chemical composition, the antioxidant activities of our regional teas and the effect of black tea on oral health.
Subsequent to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations initiative on researching the health benefits of black tea there is more information available in this regard.
Can you talk about the mechanisation of tea factories?
SS: Today's factories are a far cry from those of mid or late 20th Century, some of which at that time were below expected standards in food processing. In the 1980's conditions got better. Today's factories are well-equipped and hygienic conditions have improved well, and the only major investment required by most factories today is for the automation of processes.
But many factories have already automated the rolling process and the sorting process so that labour requirement is reduced and the product consistency is improved.
In the early ‘80s Colour Sorters were introduced to Sri Lanka a machine to remove the brown particles. We did the testing, but were concerned about the unemployment situation that this move would create, because one small machine can easily do the work of approximately 50 people. But within a few years labour became increasingly scarce. Today, particularly in the low growns where the picking of the brown particles is very important, colour sorters have become a key essential machine.
Today’s factories are well-equipped and hygienic conditions have improved well, and the only major investment required by most factories today is for the automation of processes.
The standards of our factories are excellent except for the fact that we are less automated than Japan. Our overall hygienic standards are very good now.
SA: Also at TRI we have now developed a concept called cyber extension. Through this information can be disseminated quickly to stakeholders. Also if smallholders have a problem, they can get information through their mobile phones.
Any thoughts on organic tea?
SA: As a result of our R&D, the establishment of organic tea in Sri Lanka was instigated by the TRI. Today Sri Lankan green tea finds it difficult to compete with teas from other countries due to the price factor. However, the global organic tea market is growing and there is a possibility of increasing the volume of Sri Lankan organic tea if proper marketing strategy is adopted.
What more can be done?
SS: The way I see it, we need a strong TRI, strong R&D, better equipment and more qualified and competent people. The TRI cannot continue with the limited funding that we are currently receiving. At present we do not have the ability to attract people. Young scientists might think this is not really worthwhile. There are many other employment opportunities. This must change.
TRI needs a better way of attracting and retaining people. Attraction and retention of people- that is what is needed.
Does the TRI collaborate with other research institutes?
SA: We collaborate with the Universities of Colombo, Peradeniya, Moratuwa, Institute of Fundamental Studies and Nanotechnology Institute. In addition, the TRI collaborates with many universities and organisations to achieve its R&D objectives that would ensure the growth and advancement of the Ceylon Tea industry.