Tea is much more than steeping of leaves in hot water. There is much that goes into this product that has become an international symbol of health, art, and business. Regardless of the situation or condition of the industry, the five things that must remain intact in order to sustain the international tea industry are seeds, soil, water, sun, and people. In my past “What is Sustainability for Tea” articles I highlighted the environmental, social, and economic issues surrounding the sustainability of tea, and in this article we will look at possible solutions which I have come across through my travels throughout the tea world.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, sustainable means “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed.” Applied to the tea industry it means that the industry will be able to continue operation without being destroyed.
Tea did not become an internationally demanded product until the modern part of its history. Almost 5,000 years since the discovery of tea and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the global tea industry has become what it is today. The past 200 years have seen drastic expansion of the appreciation of tea, but its fast growth has externalized many costs that are now challenging the sustainability of the industry.
Prior to the expansion of the tea industry it was a modest and sustainable trade that was very much focused on respecting the five elements of seeds, soil, water, sun, and people. One can look at the future sustainability of the tea industry by looking to the past and how these essential elements were respected. Systems were localized and decentralized, which allowed each stakeholder in the system to focus on how they can best respect these elements.
Tea begins from a seed. Modern tea is not all seed, with the industry dominated by clonal propagation and planting versus the traditional method of seed cultivation. From an efficiency perspective it makes perfect sense to achieve consistency and convenience from a tea field that is one common genetic expression. Seeds versus cuttings promote biodiversity which strengthens the garden for a longer period of time and develops a tap root that will go deep into the earth to collect more energy and flavor and encourage drought resistance. Seeds also communicate with the natural environment to produce what is best for that environment. It would be counterproductive to the commercial tea industry to convert tea fields from clones to seeds, but it may become the only option a small tea grower will have to continue their heritage of tea-making.
Soil is the home of the tea plant. Prior to the (predominantly American) introduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, soil was treated as someone would treat their own home and community. If the soil wasn’t happy and healthy than a farmer’s plants were not happy. The modern use of agriculture chemicals and techniques such as monoculturing have eliminated the biodiversity of soils around the world and have reduced the soil’s ability to provide and retain water.
Water is perhaps just as important to the growth of tea as the soil it lives in. The Earth has an abundance to give, but modern agriculture has turned its focus from cultivating natural sources of water to providing a crutch with irrigation. Even the most harsh environments in the world can provide water (I pulled water for my own consumption and use while a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sahara Desert from a 80 meter deep well). Traditional tea growers respected their natural sources of water and worked hard to protect the water they had. A big part of this was encouraging indigenous biodiversity in their community and in the soil.
Although there is not much humans can do to control the sun, there is much that we can do to protect our environment from the extremities of the sun. The sun is our source of energy and heat and is absolutely necessary for the tea plant, in controlled doses. Temperature in our environment is controlled by the sun. In recent times the temperature has become much more volatile than anticipated which has negatively affected farmers by delaying planting and harvesting schedules and affecting the quality (and price) of their products. Although the modern tea industry has not been the culprits of this “global warming”, the same ideologies that were behind the expansion of the global tea industry are behind the expansive industry and development decisions that have culminated to our current climate issues.
People are the effort that bring these elements together. It is their energy and craft that has developed the appreciation of tea. These people need to be protected and respected like heroes because tea wouldn’t exist without them. The modern tea industry that is focused on quantity rather than quality has given less and less value to the people behind the tea. In return, many families of long lineage of tea-making have left the career and left their tea gardens to grow feral. If the market only showed the same value and respect to a tea-maker that they did to the marketers of their electronics, cars, and homes, perhaps the tea-makers would be more motivated to continue making quality tea and caring for their natural resources.
These issues are not simple ones to solve. Although, if you look to the simplicity of the past you may see that it could be easier than we think. The element that changed it all and brought tea to the unsustainable fate that it sees now is centralization. This is big business that took responsibility of making tea and sharing large quantities around the world rather than independent people sharing quality. In my opinion, decentralization is the answer. A good example of this is looking at the experience of riding in a taxi versus riding in a Uber vehicle. Taxi drivers work for a centralized organization where the driver doesn’t own their car and may not put great effort into caring for the car (and possibly caring for their passengers). Uber drivers, on the other hand, are decentralized businesses that utilize Uber to connect with their passenger with a car that they own. This encourages the driver to take care of their vehicle and offer premium service to their passengers, because they are responsible for their own business. I believe this will be the solution to tea sustainability, independence and quality. If left on their own an independent tea-maker will take responsibility for caring for their seeds, soil, water, sun, and people.
This is the fourth part in a series on sustainability in the tea industry.
What an interesting idea Elyse. How can we dial back the vast expansion that we’ve created to give smaller farmers the options to expand and thrive? I’m not sure how that can happen but I’d love to be able to consider it around the globe. I think water will become another serious problem that requires solutions.
Yes, water is going to be the first motivator to make this change. It’s something that is going to happen on its own. The best thing we can do is help share knowledge and enjoy good tea!
Soil sustainability is indeed a huge problem in tea. Here in Hangzhou, farmers use excessive amounts of fertilizer because every little gain in yield means a lot more money for them since they’re growing such a famous and expensive tea. However, this further acidifies the already acidic soil which reduces the soil’s ability to hold onto nutrients and results in a lot of nitrogen leaching into local water supplies.
I’m not sure I agree with your statement about seeds being able to “communicate with the natural environment to produce what is best for that environment” better than clones. Are you suggesting that clonal plants have less plasticity? I’m not sure why that would be true.
Hello Eric, sorry for replying so late to you. I am not a botanist or tea plant specialist, so I am curious to hear your take on this. I always assumed that the genetic expression of seeds is more dependent on environment. I also assumed that clones are exactly the same expression and usually taken from a different environment. I’m thinking about some tea growers I met in Northern India that planted clones from a different region under the government’s instruction. They have feral growing tea plants from seed in the jungle which they harvest for making tea for personal consumption. I found the tea from the feral trees to be more sweet and balanced while the clones from other regions had less character. Please correct me (with supporting scientific papers) in thinking that plants from seed have a better expression than clones that come from a different region.
Tea isn’t true-breeding–the same as apples. This means that when you plant a dozen seeds from a single tea plant, you get a dozen very genetically different tea plants, many of them worse than the parents. Tea plants propagated by cuttings are going to be much more similar if not identical (there are still differences among clonal plants due to mutations). So I don’t think planting by seed per se wouldn’t make tea plants more plastic, but it might make the field more resilient because of the genetic diversity. (by “plastic” I mean the ability to change growth, flavor, etc. without a change in underlying genetics).
There are a couple of studies investigating environmental effects on clonally propagated plants that suggest they have a “memory” of their original environment, but nothing about them being less responsive to their current environment that I can find, and nothing on this topic using tea as a study species.
Your comment about planting cuttings from different regions definitely makes sense. Locally adapted varieties are going to grow better and maybe taste better, but that doesn’t have anything to do with seed vs. cutting. If we’re talking about wild plants, then they’ve been subject to natural selection (i.e., the poorly adapted ones already died) and are also probably better adapted to local conditions and maybe better tasting because of it. Although, a lot of the flavor compounds in tea are things plants produce in response to stress, so maybe not?
Vry Gud Mrng Elyse…………i want interact in our Comment. i being a Small Tea Farmer from West Bengal. Tea is a ” Queen Of Beverage” in that people is forgot every concept. All we are lkng for higher yield with this knowingly n unknowingly destroying tea culture. soil itself have capacity to reclaim the problem and create favorable cultivated condition for particular ”CROP”. EVERTHING is surrounded by tea cultivation. crop care is very essential part of the cultivation practice’s. More or less every country they are having unique climatic condition we must hv to consider it. I may think so people will realize this matter soon.In Agriculture all we become brainwash farmer infront of Chemical Company. they are making story we just listen it n follow them. that’s all.
Thank you for this article. One of the key components indeed is information. If potential buyers have more information about how their teas have been produced, at least a certain number of them will want to support sustainable production.
Unfortunately, especially with hyped teas, interest is so large that there are enough people who don’t care and will buy it anyways. For example, I love Dancong Oolongs, but for producers, it isn’t worth producing sustainably because they’ll sell their tea anyways.
Still, some sellers are starting to give more information about the conditions of production. Another thing that gives me hope is the internet; buyer’s initatives can circumvent the wholesellers, so we can join together and buy directly from farmers who we want to support.
This may all seem insignificant compared to the enormous ecological problems that we have, but every step in this direction does help to alleviate the situation.
So, lets try and do as much as we can to support these people who produce in a sustainable fastion, both for nature and for humans involved in production. They may be few, but they are there, and with our support they can set the foundation for better things to come.