Southeast Asia Globe

November 2011


Greener Teas by Elizabeth Miller, Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ensuring profits trickle down the supply chaino1

In China, tea is the everyman’s medicine, served in a ceremony designed to be more social than spiritual. In Japan, where tea arrived with monks returning from the southern stretches of the continent, tea is tied to the sacred, and its ceremony a rigid practice that honours that history.

In India, to invite someone to chai is to begin a friendship. British tea parties are remnants of the class-conscious society. In America, tea has a political charge, and right-wing Tea Partiers have revived the Revolutionary war history of tea as a symbol for protesting taxation.

Global demand for tea has seen a remarkable growth since early 2000, but erratic weather conditions have led to low yields. As a result, global tea prices have reached historic highs in recent years. While this may sound like good news for tea plantation workers, there is no guarantee that such high prices will be maintained, and unfavourable exchange rate movements have diluted profits.

More importantly, fierce competition between producing countries and increasing production costs due to pesticides and fertilisers have put pressure on profit margins. As a result, tea pickers often bear the brunt of cost reduction strategies. 

According to Solidaridad Network, an organisation that works to build sustainable supply chains in developing nations, workers on tea estates are often underpaid and face hard working conditions.

Tea growing has also become heavily pesticide- and fertiliser-reliant, and Solidaridad has reported that there are indications pesticide use in Asia is more pronounced than in Africa.

Processing tea leaves requires a large amount of firewood, which has lead to degradation of forests and erosion in India and Sri Lanka. In Vietnam, 80 percent of the energy required to process tea comes from coal, producing 0.085 million tons per year of carbon emissions, or about 2.86 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilogram of tea, according to the Asian Institute of Technology.

While the largest distributors – Unilever (Lipton), Tata Tea (Tetley) and Sara Lee (Pickwick) – are striving to improve their sustainability, their focus has mostly been on reducing carbon emissions and waste from packaging.

Jeffrey Dorchaide, co-founder of California-based Five Mountains Heirloom Organic Tea, developed his tea fanaticism while living in countries across Asia and Africa. He says that to deliver high-quality tea, he needs to go to smaller, craft growers.

And though Five Mountains teas are sourced from all over the world, they primarily purchase from tea estates in East Asia, particularly the Lan Xang (Million Elephants) region, which spans from Tibet to Vietnam. The ideal location for growing tea is Southeast Asia’s high elevation rainforests.

"I like to find areas that are remote. They’re harder to access, but the payoff is huge," he said. Tea absorbs what’s in the air,tea water and soil, and those factors impact the flavour, he explains.

When it comes to finding the best organic teas, that can mean looking for the farmers who have the easiest time of it: those growing the tea species native to that area such as Thai provincial cultivar Spring Jade.

Not only do those tea plants grow longer, producing for hundreds of years instead of just 70-80 years, and with less maintenance, the culture that surrounds them also supports the local community and the local heritage.

'Colony teas' grown in former colony nations sometimes bear the stamp of social oppression and unfavourable working conditions, even at times including child labour. (Chamomile, he said, is particularly susceptible  to this practice because it’s easily harvested by a child’s small fingers.)

In Southeast Asia, native cultivars—tea tree species native to that area—can grow for an estimated 1,200 years in practices that may be as much as 4,000 years old. In Vietnam, 34 of 64 provinces grow tea, most of it green tea that’s consumed locally, but also some black tea, 60 percent of which is exported to over 90 countries, according to SOMO, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations.

"There are a lot of indigenous tribes… They don’t often get the credit for what they do, and you’re talking biodynamic and organic growing – some of these people in South Asia have been doing it for thousands of years," Dorchaide said.

Biodynamic growing methods, which blend various symbiotic plant species, renewing the nutrients in the soil, and incorporate animals from birds to cows to provide natural, free fertilisers, in some ways recreate the traditional ecosystem. In many ways, they’re business -as-usual for a practice that’s thousands of years old.

"People are open to growing organically. They just might not know the market or how to get the certification," Dorchaide said.

Five Mountains pays, and charges, more for organic tea now, but Dorchaide said that’s a price point that could move over time, as the market for tea shifts worldwide to favour more sustainable practices.

"As more people embrace organic, of course, the price gets cheaper because it doesn’t actually cost you more, [the cost] is more in the preparation to becoming organic," he said. Organic might even be cheaper, sparing tea growers the costs of pesticides and fertilisers.

Making tea-growing more sustainable in Asia, one of the principle markets worldwide for tea, would be a huge step toward reforming the market overall. There is an estimated 140,049 metric tons of tea produced in Indonesia and 132,000 in Vietnam, both adding up to about 8% of the global production. The tea exports for Indonesia and Vietnam were valued at 134,515 USD and 115,000 USD, respectively, in 2006 and the market’s on the rise, according to SOMO. 

"Darjeeling and the Golden Triangle area are hot beds for trying out – people want to see new ways, but they’re just old ways that are being reintroduced," Dorchaide said. "I see that as basically the future."

In Northern Thailand, a joint effort between the Taiwanese and local government in Mae Saelong converted land previously used for growing opium to an area for growing tea. It spares the local people - including members of the Akha, Hmong, Lisu and Yunnanese Chinese ethnic groups—involvement in a risky industry, and takes a little less opium off the market. Instead, they grow the tea connoisseurs’ favourite, a high-quality hybrid oolong tea.

The idea of sustainable tea from small farms isn’t impossible – India now gets 25% of its tea from small farms, according to Saji Kadavil, who works with tea markets for the Solidaridad Network.

"Quality and price remain the two major challenges," he said.

"I’d like to just bring the awareness to the people that are involved behind the scenes that don’t get seen," Dorchaide said. "If that awareness can start, then people can maybe think about more ways to create change in those places."

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