Organic tea farming can play a key role in reducing the effects of climate change, experts told The National.
By limiting the use of manufactured chemical fertilisers and pesticides, organic tea farming can work within natural systems to reduce the risk of environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Soil Association – a UK-based organisation that promotes sustainable farming practices and raises awareness about their benefits.
The UN marks International Tea Day on May 21 with a focus on improving sustainability of the industry.
Supply chain development manager at the Soil Association, Mark Machin, told The National: “Organic farming can help to mitigate climate change – adopting organic farming methods can feed a growing population, maintain key exports, and drop agricultural emissions by 40 per cent to 50 per cent by 2050.”
These organic methods are not only beneficial for the environment, but also for the tea farming industry as it confronts the challenges posed by climate change by using less energy than synthetic fertilisers derived from burning fossil fuels.
“Organic farmland stores more carbon – on average 3.5 tonnes extra for every hectare, and organic soils are around 25 per cent more effective at storing carbon in the long term,” Mr Machin said.
The soil’s ability to store carbon can play a crucial role in addressing climate change.
“Organic certification offers high integrity assurance for consumers, critical in longer supply chains such as those that exist in the tea industry,” he said.
While sustainability is important in farming practices, so too is understanding the carbon footprint of the tea industry.
Tom Cumberlege, a director at the Carbon Trust – a not-for-profit company that helps businesses, governments, and organisations reduce their carbon emissions and improve their energy efficiency – identified deforestation to make way for tea fields, emissions from fertilisers and the drying of tea leaves as major contributors to the industry's carbon footprint.
Mr Cumberlege emphasised the importance of measuring the carbon footprint to create a road map for decarbonisation.
He told The National: “One of the most important actions producers can take is to properly measure the carbon footprint of the tea they grow and dry.
“This informs a road map of how the process can be decarbonised, the main levers would be to reduce fertiliser consumption and increasing renewable electricity consumption for processing.”
Addressing the overall sustainability of the tea industry, Mr Cumberlege highlighted the role of consumers, suggesting they can research products before purchasing and look for labels that demonstrate a product is effectively measuring, managing and reducing its footprint.
Mr Cumberlege expects regenerative agriculture to become a significant trend in the tea industry, reducing emissions and helping with soil management.
He also indicates the need for innovation in low-carbon alternatives for drying tea and renewable energy sources.
Climate change, Mr Cumberlege said, could have significant implications for tea production, especially in countries expected to be more affected by extreme weather and rising temperatures.
This, he said, could affect the yield of crops, worker safety, and the cost for end users.
How are tea growers investing in renewable energy sources?
The tea industry largely depends on fossil fuels or unsustainable biomass for energy in the processing stage, which involves drying the tea leaves and powering factory machines.
The financial capacity to upgrade to newer and energy-efficient equipment or to transition to on-site renewable energy sources often poses challenges.
Ethical Tea Partnership – a global membership organisation established in 1997, works to catalyse systemic change in the tea industry for the benefit of all stakeholders – among others, encourages the tea sector to switch to cleaner energy sources, such as briquettes and sustainably sourced fuelwood.
Sustainability affects the livelihoods of workers in the tea industry
Tea is an important cash crop and significantly contributes to rural development and poverty reduction.
However, climate change is a substantial threat to the livelihoods of tea workers and farmers. Extreme weather patterns result in declining crop yields and lower quality tea. The increased production costs due to additional measures like irrigation and drainage systems to combat climate change add to the burden.
Among tea communities, women and children are especially vulnerable due to unequal access to resources and decision-making processes. Climate change also affects the growth of sustenance crops, threatening food security in tea-producing countries.
Future sustainability goals for the tea industry
A central aim of industry-wide initiatives is for the tea industry to become net zero. ETP is one such organisation, working with members to set realistic emission reduction targets and identify ways to meet them.
Initiatives such as the Global Tea Coalition, comprised of chief executives from global tea packers and producers, identify global warming as a key threat to tea production and support the industry's transition to net zero.
Understanding hot spot areas in emissions and developing programmes to tackle and reduce them are ongoing efforts, ETP told The National.
New financial mechanisms are required to support farmers in moving to farming practices that absorb carbon and increase resilience to climate change.
A supportive policy framework and long-term financial investment, along with government buy-in, are also vital.
ETP told The National: "The climate crisis doesn’t pause at any time for us to take stock, so we must continue to strive to build adaptive measures into all our programme activity, find new ways to work cohesively, and to share the same targets and goals to make significant sustainable impact to protect our tea leaves and those who rely on tea to make a living."
Tea in numbers
Every day, people around the globe consume a staggering three billion cups of tea.
Of the various types, black tea holds the title as the most commonly drunk tea worldwide. With more than 1,000 varieties, tea offers a diverse range of flavours and health benefits.
The tea industry has a considerable global reach, employing approximately 13 million people.
By 2028, the Asia-Pacific tea market is expected to generate revenue of $51,650 million, while the global tea industry is forecast to reach $67,920.8 million between 2021 and 2028.
China has long been a major player in tea production, generating 2.5 million metric tonnes of tea in 2017 alone. Today, the country continues to lead the world in tea production.
In 2021, Pakistan imported $590 million worth of tea, reflecting the beverage's significance in the global market.
One striking example of tea's popularity is found in Turkey, where drinkers in 2018 consumed more than 3kg of tea per person.