Only a small number of the 320 pesticides which can no longer be used in the EU after next month concern Indian tea growers. And the regulation in question does not apply to producers outside Europe, of course, unless they export to the EU. Even so, they have until January 1, 2005 to meet the EU requirements.
The good news is that a delegation led by the Tea Board Chairman, N K Das, met the EU authorities on Friday. The delegation made it clear that India appreciated the EUs concern for public health and safety, and was not seeking special provisions for Indian tea planters. Rather, it wanted to understand the implications of the EU regulation for tea exporting countries.
The result was a very fruitful meeting, according to one of the participants, with the key officials from the EC who are responsible for consumer health and safety. As matters stand at present, Indian tea planters will have to stop using the banned pesticides and other substances if they wish to export to the EU.
This is because the EU regulation does not provide for minimum residue levels (MRL). EC officials appreciated, however, the work being done by Indian scientists on the pesticides and other substances used by Indian tea producers, and expressed a desire to share the data generated by Indian laboratories. They were impressed by the growing number of Indian tea estates which are introducing organic farming methods.
Further, EU officials also asked for information on the MRLs which are being set by the Indian authorities for tea. A point at issue is whether assessment of these levels, which are set for the dry leaf, should not take into account the fact that what people consume is an infusion.
The EU officials agreed to look at the data provided by the Indian authorities from this angle also. It is a fact, however, that this argument can be invoked by exporters of fruit and vegetable juices also.
There is considerable uncertainty, therefore, as to the practical implications of the EU regulation for Indian tea planters and exporters. Even so, the delegation made a very good start towards resolving these uncertainties, partly by its very positive attitude towards the concerns of EU consumers.
A recent EC poll revealed that a majority of Europeans believe that ensuring the safety of agricultural products, and protecting the environment, must be the two leading priorities for the EUs common agricultural policy. But only 42 per cent of those taking part in the poll felt that the food produced under this policy is safe to eat.
The efforts by the EU authorities to meet public concerns are reflected in the way in which they set MRLs. These can be set at levels which are unnecessarily low, in which case they can be regarded as a non-tariff barrier. The Codex Alimentarius, a joint FAO-WHO agency which develops food safety standards, sets them at what may be regarded as the upper limit from the viewpoint of public health, in order not to hamper trade. The EU authorities set them at a level between these two limits.
The meeting with the EU authorities was organised at very short notice by Mr Siddharth, the adviser on agricultural and marine products at Indias diplomatic mission to the EU. Other members of the delegation included Dr. N. Muraleedharan, Director, Tea Research Foundation; P. Ramakrishna, General Manager, R&D, Tata Tea; M. Dasgupta, Indian Tea Association, and Sanjay Bansal, who has pioneered Indias biotea movement.