Time for tea… and climate protection. A challenge for the world’s plantations


Black, green and white – tea is the second most popular beverage in the world, with water being the first, of course. The statistical Turk drinks as much as 1, 300 a year. cups, and other nations are not far behind. Meanwhile, the high supply of tea is nowhere near as obvious as one might expect. Experts warn that climate change could seriously affect the production of aromatic leaves, and thus the prosperity of related farmers. Can the battle for tea still be won?

Tea in numbers

The black grounds in the cup are actually the processed leaves of the evergreen plant Camellia sinensis,originally native to East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Indian Peninsula. However, it is now grown in 58 countries on five continents. Globally, this means production of 6.5 million tons per year with a total value of more than $17 billion. and an additional $9.5 billion. generated by trade. China has been the largest producer for years (47 percent of the market), followed by India (more than 20 percent). Over the past decade, global tea consumption has grown by 3.3 percent annually.

Tea plantations employ 13 million people, of whom as many as 9 million are small farmers. A sizable portion of the workforce is made up of women, for whom this work is sometimes the only source of income. In many locations, the leaves are harvested by hand, which guarantees a better quality product and higher plant fertility the following year. This is because tea, unlike wheat or corn, is a long-term investment, with many bushes living to the ripe old age of 50.

The dark side of tea plantations

Unfortunately, as with other agricultural sectors, tea cultivation and processing affect the environment. The main problem is the conversion of vast tracts of vibrant tropical forests into monoculture crops – the loss of biodiversity is difficult to describe. Farmers, in order to guarantee the profitability of their plantations in the long term, use a whole range of herbicides and pesticides, which further decimate the insect population and seriously disrupt the biological balance. The toxic effects of chemicals are also affecting other animal species – in Uganda, tea plantations surrounding Kibale National Park are negatively affecting the health of the great apes that live there.

Of course, plantation workers, usually not equipped with adequate protective equipment, are also exposed to pesticides. Their impact on health, especially for women of childbearing age, can be tragic. A study conducted in 2017 suggests possible DNA damage. Another problem is greenhouse gas emissions during fertilizer production. In China, this activity accounts for 32 percent of total tea-growing emissions.

However, the bad news for the environment does not end there. Crops must be properly dried, and this process involves huge amounts of wood and often coal. Brewing tea is another eco-friendly cost, and in the UK alone, 60,000 are brewed each year. t tea is wasted simply because someone made too much brew or rushed the preparation and it got cold before serving. A report prepared by the Ethical Tea Partnership shows that one innocent cup of black tea a day translates into 25 grams of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. In comparison, the same amount ofCO2 is generated by covering 37 km with a car!

Divination from grounds, or how climate change will affect tea production

Tea cultivation promotes deforestation, reduces biodiversity, poisons soil, water and organisms, and on top of that generates greenhouse gases. In a closed system such as the Earth, there are also processes of the opposite direction. Human-caused climate change is having a growing impact on crop quality and productivity. As a result, farmers are suffering, and indirectly the broader society, which will soon be threatened by food shortages.

Floods, droughts and heat waves, as well as unexpected hailstorms and frosts, mean serious risks for tea plantations. This is because the shrubs need regular but moderate amounts of rainfall, stable temperatures and long hours of sunlight. Sudden, lashing downpours and dramatic tropical storms, a typical symptom of climate change, do more harm than good, leading to soil erosion and reducing light. In India’s famously hilly Darjeeling tea-growing region, heavy rains cause mudslides on plantations. Flooding rivers don’t help either – every year the Brahmaputra River overflows its banks and destroys up to 15-20 percent of crops.

With rising temperatures, the risk of pest development is also increasing – the Indian province of Assam has already seen severe damage from Helopeltis theivora and rust disease for several years. The aforementioned Ethical Tea Partnership report predicts that by 2050 in Kenya, Sri Lanka and China, the area with optimal conditions for tea cultivation will decrease by 26.2 percent, 14 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively.

A closed loop economy can help

The good news is that reducing the negative environmental impact of tea production can be done in parallel with mitigating climate change. Experts call for the implementation of a circular economy on plantations and increasing plant resilience at the same time.

Among others, the following are pointed out as prospective solutions. agroforestry, which is the planting of trees in the plantations that will protect the tea bushes from wind and soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. And more species, especially birds, means less chance for crop-damaging pests to thrive. In Uganda from 2023. a project is underway to use waste from banana and tea production to support the soil health of plantations while introducing selected tree species into growing areas. Replacing a monoculture with a mosaic of species offers a huge opportunity for the environment, but also for the tea industry.

Farmers need to be motivated to switch from chemical fertilizers to natural and organic pesticides, which translate into higher profits – as tea from organic plantations can be sold at correspondingly higher prices. What’s more, experience from Yunnan Province in China shows that agroforestry results in an increase in the flavor of dried leaves. Another challenge relates to reducingCO2 emissions in tea processing. In addition to drawing solar energy, a promising solution is to use natural wastes, such as macadamia nut shells, rice or coffee husks as fuel. Thus, agricultural waste returns to the farms, and the cycle closes. Such a scenario, combined with regenerative practices, is cause for optimism.

Time for tea… How about drinking less of it?

Green, black and white tea are sources of antioxidants that protect against many serious diseases. It has already been proven that people who regularly enjoy an infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves are at a lower risk of infections, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. However, what’s too much is unhealthy, and excess tea on the daily menu has been associated with reduced iron absorption, increased nervousness, insomnia, nausea, heartburn and headaches. So one less cup can benefit the body, and further reduce the ecological ballast.

Paradoxically, however, in brewing tea responsibly, the most important thing remains… water! It is the preparation of boiling water that is the biggest source of emissions associated with a cup of Earl Grey. A British study shows that boiling more water than needed increases the negative ecological effects of tea consumption by up to 2-3 times!

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