How climate change is taking a toll on Indian tea

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  • Over 828 hectares of tea plantations have been affected due to the cold temperatures
  • Tea production in Kerala had taken a massive hit because of the floods, with estimated production down by 11% in November 2018
  • Frost can destroy the crop and plantations have to be careful while cultivating as the affected area won’t yield any produce for three months thereafter
The town of Munnar and major tea plantations in Kerala in South India known for its sunny skies and soothing seashores woke up to frost over the past weekend. The surprising weather is the strongest sign yet that climate change poses a serious threat to the state’s sprawling tea plantations.

The frost has affected over 828 hectares of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company, an official from the company told The New Indian Express. The hills of Kerala’s Munnar, Kannimala, Chenduvara, Chittuvara, Seven valley and Nallathanni have been affected by the dip in mercury.

While tea, being a sub-tropical plant, can survive cold temperatures, frost can usually destroy the crop and plantations have to be careful while cultivating, say experts. Frost usually sets in when temperature drops to less than three or four degrees and humidity levels reach less than 30.

“It affects the bushes in the valley. During sunrise, when it starts melting the tender leaf gets burnt after which the affected area yields no crop for the next three months,” said R. Rajkumar, group manager of Glendale Estate in Nilgiris.

Rajkumar added that it’s difficult to take precautionary measures because of the size of the tea plantations. However, for smaller areas ferns can be planted to cover the tea bushes, protecting them from frost.

Frost isn’t the only thing threatening tea plantations.

Tea production in Kerala took a massive hit last year because of floods, falling by 11 per cent in November 2018 in comparison to the previous year. Last year, about 44 hectares of land was washed away in Kerala and Tamil Nadu because of the floods resulting in an estimated loss of about $820 million.

Kerala has 35.01 thousand hectares of land dedicated to tea plantations producing over 56 million kgs, according to data from 2015-16, and has witnessed a decline in production in the past few years because of averse climate conditions.

Bala Sarda, founder of Vahdam Teas told Business Insider that both the production and quality of tea are set to take a hit due to the current situation.

“The production cost per kilo goes up naturally leading to an unstable situation for both manufacturers and buyers. And with a lower yield and poor quality, the prices too will also go up,” he said.

North India, though, has a different story. Last week, the Tea Board of India had initiated a crackdown on the plucking of tea leaves during winters in Northern India, to discourage tea production of inferior quality, which could subsequently affect its pricing.

Additionally, reports suggest that the 2019 tea auction could in fact see better pricing because of a shortfall in production.

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