Organic farming is not new to India. The country has already launched the National Programme for Organic Production to provide an institutional framework for implementing standards for organic products. This system includes certification of organic farms, products and processes as per the National Standards of Organic Products (NSOP). A certification "India Organic", communicating the authenticity and the origin of the product, will be granted on the basis of compliance with the NSOP. For the certification of organic tea, the Tea Board has been designated as the accreditation body.

The production of organic (or organic in conversion) tea was 150,000 kg in 1990 and it increased to 2,150,000 kg in 2000. Cultivation started in Darjeeling during 1986 and gradually spread to the tea areas of Assam and then to South India. As of 2002, there were 42 tea gardens in the country that had taken up organic tea cultivation in an area of 6000 hectares . The current production level is around 3.5 million kgs. The main export destinations include Australia, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, UK and the USA. In India itself, Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Hyderabad accounted for the majority of the domestic consumption of organic tea.

The Tea Board has submitted a project proposal aimed at developing the technology and system of organic tea production by setting up model organic farms. Financial assistance is being provided by the Tea Board for imparting training on organic methods of cultivation.

What exactly is organic?

Tea qualifies as organic only when environment-friendly techniques are employed in its production. An organic unit should essentially be a self-sustaining one, designing the farm at the time of establishment of new organic tea plantation is crucial for optimum utilization of resources within the plantation itself. The topography of the land and varieties of tea to be planted determine the basic design of the organic farm at the functional level. The estate must also have trees, bunds, cattle shed, compost yard, store house etc to enable it to become a self supporting system within a reasonable time. The resultant slurry could be passed through a simple gas plant, which provides methane gas for use as fuel and organic manure in the form of slurry which is comparatively better in quality and cheaper source of fertilization.

Demand for organic tea, like other organic foods, has also been growing rapidly since it was introduced in the late 1980's. Organic tea consumption has grown by about 10 percent globally each year since 1980.
In order to establish organic tea fields, it is necessary to build up inherent nutrient levels and neutralise the chemical residues left in soils from past cultivation. This requires an interim period - called the conversion period. Based on the agro-ecological conditions, this period may vary from 3 to 5 years. If plantation is taken up before conversion period is over, chemical residues may show up in the product.

Nutrient management

Leguminous plants, shade trees, and green manure are all sources of nutrients for the growing plants. In addition, nutrients are also supplemented by using well composted cattle manure, poultry manure, biogas slurry and neem cakes. A culture of Azotobacter (10 kg per hectare) can also be inoculated into the organic manure along with the phosphate solubilising fungi (Aspergillus awamori) before application into the field.

Tree litter is shredded and fungal cultures of Trichoderma viridae, Trichurus spiralis, and Paeciliomyces fusiporus can also be added to it. Best results can be obtained by maintaining a 100% moisture level during the initial period. Improvement of soil health through vermiculture is also recommended. Vermicompost can be mixed with nursery soil during filling up of polythene sleeves for good rooting of the tea cuttings. This can also be mixed with the soil at the time of replanting for enabling easy establishment of plants. The compost can also be used in mature tea fields for improving the soil organic matter content. In the presence of sufficient moisture, compost at the rate of 5 tonnes per hectare could be applied.

Insect pest and disease management

Insect, disease and nematode management in organic farming systems rely on the inherent equilibrium in nature. This includes using natural enemies of pests to keep their numbers in check. These include insect predators, parasites (insects that use other insects to produce their offspring, thereby killing the pest insect in the process), and pathogens (diseases that kill or decrease the growth rate of insect pests). Predatory insects on organic farms include lady beetles, lacewings, and spiders. Parasitic insects include wasps and flies that lay their eggs in/on pest insects,such as larvae or caterpillars.

Barriers

Even though many farmers are switching over to cultivation of organic tea, there are still many hurdles to overcome before production can really increase. One factor is the relatively high labour requirement for growing organic tea. This is because practices like weed control, which are done manually, are labour intensive. Further, some of the organic manures tested in Darjeeling were found to be deficient in potassium (1.3%) and consequently some farmers were resorting to extensive addition of organic manure to make up for this. Organic manure is however rich in Nitrogen. In many tea estates the manure is not manufactured in situ, and thus transportation costs have to be borne by planters.

Another common fear among farmers is that the production levels for green tea will not match the black one which is grown with chemical fertilizers. This fear is unfounded as, with techniques like vermicomposting and using green manure and neem cakes, plant nutrient requirements for green tea can be met. Chemical fertilizers can provide excellent yields but only in the short run because, for ensuring long term sustainability, farm nutrient levels need to be enriched. This can be achieved only through organic farming.

However, the most important barrier for organic tea cultivation is the lack of good marketing channels - which prevents planters from securing a good premium for their efforts. Big tea companies have just entered into this field, and are yet to purchase substantial quantities of organic tea from the planters.

The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements has defined the objectives of organic farming as to:

  • produce food and beverages of high nutritional quality in sufficient quantity;
  • work with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them;
  • encourage and enhance biological cycles within the farming system, involving micro-organisms; soil flora and fauna, plants and animals;
  • maintain and increase the long term fertility of soils;
  • use as far as possible renewable on-farm resources in locally organized agricultural systems;

Many are convinced that the market for organic tea exists, what is needed is to organize small farmers to act together to produce and market their own products for the domestic and export markets. Training programs are needed for farmers and NGOs not only in organic agriculture methods (production, harvest and post harvest techniques, basic standards etc.), but also aimed to help them understand how to sell, promote and diversify their markets and meet certification requirements, which requires good internal controls and administrative practices on farms. In addition, it will help if either the government or tea companies take up an organic tea promotion drive in national and export markets.

There is an also an urgent need to focus on retaining and improving the competitive advantages of Indian tea, which is already facing increasing global competition. This can be achieved only by improving productivity, quality and keeping production constantly tuned to the demands of the market. The farmers are already doing their bit on this, and it's up to the government and NGOs to chip in. With all these steps, the day may not be far when that cup of tea on your table may truly be green.