Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea: The Cup that Cheers now Saves Ozone!

Text of my article that appears in Ceylon Today newspaper, on 20 September 2012

Ozone Friendly Logo adorns Ceylon Tea packaging – photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

On 21 September 2012, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will honour Sri Lanka for its long standing commitment to preserving the ozone layer.

At a special ceremony at Jana Kala Kendraya (Folk Art Centre) in Battaramulla, a global plaque is to be presented to the Speaker of Parliament and Minister of Environment by Marco Gonzalez, Executive Secretary of UNEP’s Ozone Secretariat.

This is one of six events worldwide to mark the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer — the world’s most widely subscribed international law.

Since it signed and ratified the Montreal Protocol in 1989, Sri Lanka has been active on several fronts to phase out various industrial and agricultural chemicals that damage the ozone layer – a natural occurring atmospheric phenomenon that protects all life from the Sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Among the many accomplishments is introducing the world’s first ozone friendly tea. The May 2011 launch of ‘Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea’ logo highlighted a remarkable success story of a developing country complying with a global environmental treaty while also enhancing a major export industry.

The logo is already displayed by many Ceylon Tea manufacturers and distributors. It marks another value addition to the island’s best known export product, an industry worth US Dollars 1.5 billion a year.

The logo reminds Ceylon Tea drinkers worldwide that their favourite ‘cuppa’ has been produced without harming the Ozone Layer. That means our tea is growing without any Methyl Bromide on tea plantations. Instead, ozone-friendly substitutes are now used as fumigants to protect tea bushes from pest attacks, particularly the nematodes (roundworms).

The Montreal Protocol requires all Methyl Bromide use to end by 1 January 2015 (except in emergency situations and quarantine purposes). Sri Lanka got there ahead of schedule.

“Sri Lanka is renowned for its creative activities to raise public awareness on ozone layer protection. The Ozone-Friendly Ceylon Tea logo is another significant achievement of Sri Lanka,” says Atul Bagai, Senior Regional Coordinator of UNEP’s OzonAction team based in Bangkok, Thailand.

He sees multiple benefits from this branding exercise: “Considering the worldwide popularity of Ceylon Tea, this initiative will greatly contribute to the global efforts to protect the ozone layer.”

Searching for Substitutes

It took many years and involved collaboration between government agencies, private companies, scientists and the international community.

Producing Ceylon Tea — known for its distinctive and diverse range of flavours — is as much an art as it’s a science. In recent years, Sri Lanka’s tea industry has modernised manufacturing, distribution and marketing. It has also responded to rising consumer expectations and regulatory requirements in export markets.

The Sri Lanka Tea Board believes that ‘Ozone Friendly’ status could give a competitive advantage for Ceylon Tea at a time when ethically and environmentally responsible products are gaining markets around the world.

Methyl Bromide, also known as Bromo-methane, is a colourless, odourless and highly toxic gas at normal temperatures and pressures. It has been widely used in agriculture since the 1930s to fumigate the soil against weeds, harmful insects and worms. It is a versatile pesticide that works against various creatures that attack crops both in the field and at storage.

UNEP says alternatives have been identified for most Methyl Bromide applications. These include using other chemicals, as well as non-chemical measures such as solarisation, exposure to steam or hot water, and crop rotation.

The National Ozone Unit of the Ministry of Environment initiated action to phase out Methyl Bromide in tea plantations over a dozen years ago. The Tea Research Institute (TRI), working with tea plantation companies, found some environmentally friendly alternatives. The Registrar of Pesticides, the state regulator for all agro-chemicals, was also consulted.

In fact, the search for substitutes started in the mid 1990s when the Ministry of Environment alerted the TRI about on-going discussions at Montreal Protocol meetings about controlling Methyl Bromide.

Perceptive officials realised how the highly technical discussions being held in far away places could one day affect how Ceylon Tea was grown and marketed.

Dr Janaka Ratnasiri, then head of the Ministry’s Montreal Protocol Unit, recalls negotiations at Montreal Protocol meetings in the late 1990s. “We had to persuade other countries to get tea included in the list of crops eligible for research funding to eliminate Methyl Bromide. Initially only five other crops – grown mainly in the west – were on that list.”

To make matters more difficult, no other tea-growing country was using this chemical. But his ‘scientific diplomacy’ worked, and Sri Lanka’s case to add tea to the crop list was accepted.

In 1995, the TRI responded with a proposal to research for substitutes. Initial funding support came from the Norwegian aid agency NORAD. The Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol, set up to assist developing countries in protecting ozone, helped continue that research and field testing.

“TRI scientists, led by Ms Sushila Vitarana, worked with meagre sums of money and came out with several recommendations for adoption by the tea plantations,” says Dr Ratnasiri.

Many Hands, One Aim

During the past few years, all Sri Lankan tea plantations – large and small – have gradually introduced substitutes to Methyl Bromide. For example, plantations owned by Sri Lanka’s Dilmah Tea, among the top five global tea brands, have switched to using Basamid-Granular for soil fumigation.

“Although the new methodology is cumbersome, our plantations have adopted it unreservedly in order to reduce the damage to ozone layer,” says Dilhan C Fernando, marketing director of Dilmah Tea.

It was the partnership between policy makers, researchers, tea plantation companies and the development donors that enabled the Sri Lankan tea industry to wean itself from a decades-long dependence on a trusted chemical.

Janaka Gunawardana, Director of the National Ozone Unit with ozone friendly Ceylon Tea
“This is a good example of public-private partnership (PPP),” says Janaka Gunawardana, Director of the National Ozone Unit. “It was with the support from the private sector tea plantation companies that Sri Lanka was able to eliminate Methyl Bromide use. And now, we are using this environmentally responsible conduct to enhance the brand value of Ceylon Tea worldwide.”

“Public-private partnerships are very helpful in implementing international treaties such as the Montreal Protocol,” says Gunawardana. “They can be challenging at times, but we want to build up more collaborations with the private sector.”

The Tea Board aims to have all tea exports displaying the ozone friendly logo by end 2012.

“All tea grown in Sri Lanka is now 100% ozone-friendly. This is a distinction of which no other tea-producing nation can boast,” says the Tea Board website, www.pureceylontea.com.

It adds: “When you reach for a cup of Ceylon Tea, you’re not just refreshing yourself; you’re also helping refresh and renew an environmental resource critically important to all life on Earth.”