According to a report issued by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, tea exports, which had been affected by severe drought at the beginning of the year, had earned the country US$58.2 million in April, a significant decline from the US$104.7 million earned during the same period of the previous year.
"The reduction in earnings from tea exports in April was largely due to the lower export quantities, which could be attributed to lower global demand and the effect of drought conditions," the report said.
Tea is Sri Lanka’s largest export crop. Seeking to mitigate the effects of drought, pests and disease, the Tea Research Institute (TRI) is seeking to develop new, hardier varieties.
"Earlier the need was to increase the yield. So we focused on developing high yielding varieties of tea plants," said Dr. Kumudini Gunasekare, TRI’s head of the Plant Breeding Division. "But now the focus is on developing tea plants that have higher resistance to pests and diseases, and also to drought."
Climate change and increased consumer demand for teas that are grown using fewer and less noxious chemicals is fueling the research
Tea production fell by 41.6% year on year, mostly as a consequence of drought, according to the Sri Lanka Tea Board.
"Seasonal teas like Dimbula and Uva teas are for niche markets and are higher priced," said TRI director Dr. Sarath Abeysinghe.
"These are also the teas most affected by changes in weather because the weather plays a role in bringing out the distinct characteristics of these teas.
For instance, Dimbula teas, produced around January to March, need cold mornings and hot days. When the weather pattern changes, there is a change in the quality of the tea."
The Institute relies on traditional methods in its work.
"We do not, on principle, develop genetically modified tea plants," said Abeysinghe. "We use conventional breeding techniques, of cross breeding, to develop new varieties of tea with specific characteristics. So it takes about 20 years to develop a new cultivar. But we have now also started molecular biology screening, which is a faster process,"