Even though I have written about pesticides and tea before, I wanted to address the subject again because once again the issue is in the news with Celestial Seasonings getting busted by the same group that busted Teavana last year. The Glaucas Research Group seems to be making money by exposing publicly traded companies and selling things short. It is true that they have a not-so-hidden agenda in exposing these companies, but without having proof, they could not make much. If you read the reports, you can see that an independent testing agency in Europe did a very thorough job removing whatever doubt there might be about the motives of the Glaucas Research Group.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that there are pesticides used in commercial tea production, and that third-world countries are using some illegal ones, which are probably cheaper. The boney finger always gets pointed at China, the great polluter, with pollution in Beijing as bad as when I was a kid in Los Angeles. They give us a good run for our money when it comes to polluting the air, but let’s not forget that Africa and South America are where most exported tea is produced, not India and China, where they predominantly drink their own tea. It can all be explained in three words: cheap prices, commodity, and quantity. For the most part, bugs come in the summer. In the tropics, however, bugs are omnipresent. It’s always summer. It provides for a long growing season and an abundant yield. It is a broader truth that if you want cheap tea and cheap food, pesticides come along with the price.
How does that relate to the way we buy tea? Well, first of all, we don’t buy summer tea. I know that is an obvious one. In addition, we buy tea that is grown at a high altitude, where there are not as many bugs, we don’t buy from commercial growers, and, with a few exceptions, we buy certified organic. The truth is that the mountainous areas where we buy our tea don’t lend themselves to commercial agriculture at all. Terroir is everything in tea as well as in wine, and don’t let anyone tell you any different. The other magical thing about the tea plant in relation to terroir is that over time the plant itself develops defenses to predators as it becomes part of the local biodiversity. That is one of the functions of both caffeine and tea polyphenols.
In June, I am going to London for a meeting of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) to discuss tea, pesticides, and the sustainable future. I have done some informal consulting with them about the Chinese tea industry. They have a program that teaches farm workers in China how to work safely with pesticides. I recognize the irony, but remember that the ETP is NGO funded by the major tea producers. While I think it is a great thing that they are keeping farm workers from poisoning themselves, they have ignored the possibility of reaching sustainability without chemical pesticides, something China has had in tea for 2000 years by focusing on quality, not quantity.
In recent years, the Chinese have had some shining examples of quality over quantity with their Anji Bai Cha. It is a major money-making crop that only has a spring season and pesticides are banned in its production throughout the country. Compare this to 1980 when there were only two Anji Bai Cha plants in existence. It is a good example of the dynamic nature of the Chinese tea industry. Another good example, maybe more familiar to Americans, is the case of white tea. There may not be higher standards, as in the Anji example, but Anji Bai Cha was a crop that barely existed twenty years ago and is now a very common tea. The crop was completely driven by the export market and has always fetched good prices.
Changing the agricultural model outside of China and supporting a return to it inside of China seems like a logical and tested way to sustainability in the tea industry, as is true in food production as well. It doesn’t mean an end to the commodity model, but at least adjusting to a hybrid that considers incorporating the principles of the Ethical Tea Partnership seems like another logical step. Of course, prices will go up, but everybody, including the consumer, benefits, if not financially then with better health and quality of life.
Austin Hodge is the founder of sevencups.com.