Dr. Ahmed with Tea Traders in Yunnan Province

For many, particularly tea lovers, Dr. Selena Ahmed’s job sounds like a dream job – travel to China several times a year, converse with tea farmers, and sample some of the best teas in the world.  However, that brief description does not do justice to the breadth and depth of Dr. Ahmed’s research and its importance to all of us for whom a day without tea is hard to fathom.  Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Ahmed, an Assistant Professor in the Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems Program at Montana State University, about how she came to study tea and her research findings thus far.

Tea as a Research Topic

Since the beginning of her academic career, Dr. Ahmed has had a particular interest in human interaction with the environment, including how human activity affects the environment and how the environment, in turn, shapes human activity.  It was over a cup of tea with her doctoral advisor after returning home from a summer of field research in the Amazon that the idea of doing research on tea – specifically wild and managed tea trees growing in forests and agro-forests in China’s Yunnan province – sprung to life.  Yunnan province is widely thought to be the birthplace of tea.

Tea Gardens in Hangzhou Province

Tea Gardens in Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province

Thus began Dr. Ahmed’s tea-related research in 2006, funded by several grants and focused initially on biodiversity coupled with the phytochemical quality of tea production systems, the management of tea production systems, and the ethnography of tea management systems, all in Yunnan province. Dr. Ahmed published some of this work for a general audience in her illustrated book with photographer, Michael Freeman, The Tea Horse Road: China’s Ancient Trade Road to Tibet. Recently, Dr. Ahmed has expanded her research to the effects of climate change on tea quality and the accompanying socio-economic responses, thanks to a generous four-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program with a team of collaborating professors and students at Tufts University, the University of Florida, and the Tea Research Institute of China.  

Early Research Findings

Tea Tasting in Hangzhou Province

Tea Tasting in Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province

Dr. Ahmed’s early research on tea found that the management of production systems significantly impacts tea quality. Specifically, she found that tea cultivated in agro-forests had higher phytochemical and flavor quality as well as biodiversity than the more intensively managed tea systems she studied. The research Dr. Ahmed is collaboratively conducting under the auspices of her NSF grant builds on her earlier research on management, climate change, and tea.  Whereas all of her tea research prior to her NSF grant was in Yunnan province, this grant allows her to expand to a wider geographic area that includes the northern, southern, eastern, and western ranges of tea in China, covering a total of four climate zones.

As tea aficionados well know, many factors affect the taste and health benefits of tea, which, taken together, determine tea quality.  Climate and terroir as well as seasonal variability can dramatically alter a tea’s flavor profile and phytochemical properties.  What Dr. Ahmed has found particularly surprising is the flavor and phytochemical differences among tea harvested from the same plants during the same year, but during different seasons, and the ways this varies with how farmers manage their tea systems.  For example, Dr Ahmed recorded phytochemical drops of up to 50% brought on by uncharacteristic droughts and monsoon patterns; these drops directly affected the prices farmers received for their tea.

Measuring Tea Quality

Comparing tea from different seasons and management systems, Dr. Ahmed is taking a two-pronged approach to assessing tea quality.  First, she is evaluating key compounds found in tea to determine the health benefits variable in the quality equation, including various antioxidants and polyphenols. Her collaborators at Tufts University are evaluating these same samples for key volatile compounds that influence the aroma and taste of tea.

Fresh 2014 Spring Tea Harvest from an Agro-Forest

Fresh 2014 Spring Tea Harvest from an Agro-Forest

Secondly, she is relying on feedback from tea connoisseurs in China, a tea panel at the Chinese National Tea Research Institute, and western tea traders to assess the taste and flavor profiles of the same teas – the quality equation’s taste variable. Her collaborators at Tufts University are also working with a trained tea panel and western tea consumers. To gather the requisite data, Dr. Ahmed and her co-principal investigators will travel to China several times each year for the next three years.

Managing the Results of Climate Change

An equally important component of Dr. Ahmed’s work is the human component.  How do tea farmers perceive climate change and its impact on their crops and livelihoods?  Are they concerned?  What, if anything, are they doing to counteract any negative climate effects?  Over the centuries, the entire culture of southeastern China has revolved around the tea plant, with many traditions and daily rituals directly influenced by tea.  How the tea farmers of this region respond to and manage climate change will either make or break the tea industry of the future.

Just the Beginning

Tea Agro-Forest

Tea Agro-Forest

Dr. Ahmed’s latest body of work is just beginning, but it holds enormous promise.  One trend Dr. Ahmed has already noticed is that tea harvested from the tea agro-forests of Yunnan province shows the most resilience in the face of climate change. Tea agro-forests mimic a forest environment compared to more controlled tea production systems; in addition, tea agro-forests do not utilize any agro-chemical input.

Although this tea is generally not “certified” organic, it is grown under conditions that frequently surpass the standards set forth for a product to earn the “certified organic” label, including fostering biodiversity.  The Chinese government should consider subsidizing the high cost of obtaining organic certification and certification organizations need to take a closer look at the tea agro-forests for a new definition of what qualifies as organic.

Ultimately, Dr. Ahmed seeks to contribute to providing evidence that influences policies and management plans to enhance the resilience of tea systems in the face of climate uncertainty so we can all enjoy the tastiest cups of tea that are good for both humans and the environment.

All photos provided by Dr. Ahmed.