Indian tea is laden with pesticides: Greenpeace India

downloadTrouble Brewing – Pesticide Residues in Tea Samples is the result of an investigation carried out by Greenpeace India to understand the situation concerning the use of pesticide usage in tea, which is a quintessential part of Indian culture and critical to the economy. The study has found residues of hazardous chemical pesticides in a majority of samples of the main brands of packaged tea produced and consumed in India. Over half of the samples contained pesticides that are ‘unapproved’ for use in tea cultivation or which were present in excess of recommended limits. The report underscores possible implications for health and the environment, which is both unnecessary and avoidable. While it highlights the fact that the tea industry is stuck on a pesticides treadmill, it suggests that tea companies, which are critical stakeholders in the tea industry, take the necessary steps in moving away from pesticides while adopting a holistic approach is best way forward.

India is the second largest producer and the fourth largest exporter of tea globally, with the marketing and sales of tea forming a multi-billion dollar market (estimated at us$40.7 billion) both domestically, and globally. (Page 7)

The tea industry in India is now over 175 years old, with the total area under tea cultivation around 9.8 lakh or nearly 1 million hectares. Tea is produced in plantations across the Northeast and Southern regions of India, mainly in the states of Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, with the most intensively cultivated areas in the Northeast accounting for around three quarters of national production.

The use of pesticides on agricultural produce can lead to residues of the active ingredients or their derivatives persisting in the environment, and in the harvested and processed commodities. Tea is no exception and previous work published by Greenpeace in China, as well as reports from work carried out by organisations elsewhere, has identified the presence of pesticides in tea as a serious problem, which undermines its otherwise positive image as beneficial to health and well-being.  (Page 10)

The tea market in India is made up of diverse national and international players. The dominant brands are marketed by Hindustan Unilever and Tata Global Beverages, which account for around 54% of the market. This report focuses on the brands sold by the top 11 companies according to their market share in 2012. (Page 12)

The most frequently detected pesticides Thiamethoxam, Cypermethrin, Acetamiprid, Thiacloprid, DDT, Deltamethrin, Dicofol, Imidacloprid and Monocrotophos, were present in over half of the samples. (Page 16)

These results strongly suggest that the number of pesticides in use in tea cultivation is still large, with evidence that the older persistent pesticides such as DDT and Endosulfan are mostly being substituted by other pesticide groups, such as the pyrethroids and the more recently developed neonicotinoids. Tea is still clearly stuck on the “pesticide treadmill”. (Page 26)

The fact that a variety of pesticides continue to be used in tea cultivation and that many of the samples contained a mixture of pesticides, raises questions about their impact on human health and the environment, from the exposure of workers during cultivation to the consumption of tea by consumers. (Page 28)

There is some emerging evidence that pesticide exposure may be associated with reproductive abnormalities, immune suppression, cancer and hormone disruption in humans, presumably as a result of changes in basic metabolic function. Even in low concentrations, pesticide mixture effects can lead to differing and sometimes lethal impacts on some species of wildlife. (Page 30)

In Indian tea plantations, exposure of plantation workers to pesticide mixtures has been shown to induce DNA damage in the form of increased levels of micronuclei, indicating genotoxic effects. Anecdotal evidence from interviews with 426 pesticides sprayers conducted by staff at the National Labour Institute, suggests that workers experience many forms of ailments and physical discomforts. (Page 32)

The interactions between the chemicals are very largely unknown since the toxicology of such mixtures has rarely been investigated beyond simple binary mixtures of agents. Assuming that of the 34 pesticides identified in this analysis, groups of 10 were selected for study as mixtures, then this would necessitate the evaluation of over 131 million different possible combinations. (Page 33)

However, chronic pesticide exposure could have potential long-term health impacts. The inability to model and evaluate the potential impacts of mixtures, including synergistic impacts of pesticides, as well as the potential health effects on tea farming workers from exposure to these pesticides, makes a strong case for exercising precaution to ensure avoidance of any exposure.

This makes a strong, legitimate and urgent case for the various commercial players in the tea sector to invest in a transition towards ecological approaches to cultivation in the tea sector and for the Government to set up relevant policy initiatives.

These ecological concepts should not be confused with those that are currently promoted such as integrated pest Management (IPM) and should be seen as an essential part of the transformation of the Indian tea sector towards ecological agriculture. (Page 35)

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