Although global tea plantations are under threat from climate change and competition for land, life without tea is unthinkable for the billions of people who rely on their cherished cups of tea to get them through the day.Tea crops the world over are facing multiple threats, from climate change and water shortages to rural de-population and low wages. Therefore, serious are these threats that some of the world’s biggest tea companies are joining forces to combat them.
Unilever, which owns Lipton, Brook Bond and PG Tips, Twinings, Finlays and Tata Global Beverages, which owns Tetley, is laying to one side competitive instincts to protect the long-term future of its business and ensure that tea remains as accessible and affordable as it is today.“Unless we manage these issues, we’re looking at a very different future for tea,” said Sally Uren, Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, which is coordinating the Tea 2030 initiative.
The threats to tea are many and varied. The world’s population is set to grow by a third by 2050, increasing demand for food by up to 70 percent, according to the United Nations. And much of this population growth will be in rapidly-developing countries such as China and India - precisely those that produce the most tea.
TOP TEA FACTS
4 Thirty-five countries around the world produce tea 4 Next to water, tea is the world’s most popular drink 4 More than three billion cups of tea are consumed every day across the world 4 Tea was first produced in China more than 5,000 years ago4Tea contains half the amount of caffeine found in coffee 4 Worldwide consumption of tea grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 20104Tea is one of the biggest industries in Sri Lanka Tea production is often more energy intensive than steel productionPressure on agricultural land will inevitably rise and tea will have to compete with other, more staple, crops. For example, between 2005 and 2010, 13,000 hectares of land in Indonesia were converted from tea to growrubber, palm oil and fruit, while minor export crops are becoming an increasingly attractive alternative in Sri Lanka.
People have got more choices now about what crops they grow. In a world of limited resources and rapidly growing populations, tea may increasingly find itself crowded out. And it’s not just growing populations but demographics that will affect tea production. Urbanisation means rural workers are moving en masse to cities in search of higher wages and a better life.Traditionally, wages have been low in the tea industry, with many workers struggling to survive on less than a realistic living wage. The attraction of servicesector jobs in the city can be hard to resist.Workers may be getting the right wage legally but this may not be adequate. We need to look at what can be done to ensure workers receive a proper living wage.
Climate change is another major threat to tea production. Tea is a relatively delicate plant, sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall and is grown in regions particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events.In the past 60 years, for example, rainfall has fallen significantly in many tea producing countries, while forecasts suggest Sri Lanka will experience more intense rain and higher temperatures in the future.
Low wages mean the tea industry is struggling to attract tea pluckers. In those regions, where rain can no longer be relied upon, tea growers have had to turn to irrigation and with it the very real threat of water shortages. It is quite possible that more extreme weather could interrupt supply and make tea far more difficult to grow. Tea production in some areas, particularly those at higher altitudes, will no longer be possible due to frequent flooding and landslides.
The increasing popularity of tea in domestic markets also means there could be less available for export, thus, any shortfall in supply will be exacerbated in those countries dependent on imports to quench the massive demand for tea.
From the 1970s through to the early 2000s, the price of tea fell gradually as supply exceeded demand. Since then, however, the price has more than doubled as the demand-supply dynamic has reversed, in no small part due to drought hitting global production.
Tufts University Biology Professor Colin Orians has begun his work on a multi-year study looking at the impact of climate change on the growth of tea in China. In ‘Climate Effects on Tea Quality and Socioeconomic Responses’, the team will consider how the extremes of dry days and monsoons impact not only the taste and texture of the tea when infused but the actual chemistry of the leaves themselves.The key goal is to assess the ways in which tea might be most at risk of the effects of climate change and how those impacts may change farming and land use.
Early tastings suggested that the dry season teas were more pleasing to the researchers than those plucked during wetter periods. This is important as climate change is contributing to longer monsoon seasons, which could have a deleterious effect on the tea and the price farmers can command in the long term. In Sri Lanka, business leaders, academics and environmentalists are raising awareness and taking action. Dilmah Teas, a 40-year-old Sri Lankan-owned enterprise, is launching a climate change research station to study the potential impacts of climate change and develop future mitigation strategies.
Other companies such as Unilever, which runs an instant tea factor in Sri Lanka, have held events to educate employees on environmental issues such as water conservation. TRI has been talking about this a few years ago but not much research is being done on this subject.With data suggesting Sri Lanka’s overall temperatures have risen one Celsius degree the past century, the possibility of climate change wreaking havoc on this volatile industry is too big of a risk to overlook.
The scale and gravity of these threats have forced tea companies to work together. “The big players are realising the challenges they face are complex and too big to tackle alone. They are systemic and there are no easy answers,” said Uren.Much has been achieved already, as the tea industry has been collaborating for almost 20 years. For example, many companies have already achieved 100 percent Rainforest Alliance Certification, which reflects environmental as well as social standards.Very few women hold supervisory roles on tea plantations. The focus has been on critical issues such as wages, the role of women and educating farmers how best to grow and protect crops and therefore their livelihoods. There is much more to do but attention is also turning to longer-term, fundamental threats. “We all have an investment in the future of the tea industry and we will have more impact, more scale and get things done faster and better [if we work together],” said Tubb.
She said the tea companies have no choice. “We’ve got to work together and if that means pooling resources - financial and expertise - then we must be open to it,” she said. By working together, all parties seem hopeful there is enough time to resolve the grave threats facing the tea industry. Let’s hope they’re right or one day drinking tea may be seen as more of a luxury than a necessity in the western world.
GLOBAL TEA PRODUCTION DECLINES IN 2014
Mid-year statistics show tea production in 2014 will fall short of recent years. Through July, global black tea production is estimated at 871.91 million kilos (Mkg) compared to 891.69 Mkg during the same period in 2013 harvest, a decline of 2.22 percent.
Kenya, the world’s largest producer of black tea, reported a second year decline due to reduced rainfall during the critical spring months and cooler summer temperatures for the second flush harvest. Production was down 44 Mkg to 225.18 Mkg.
In Kenya, the Kericho County was most affected with production declining by 13.1 percent to 36.12 Mkg from 41.55 Mkg in 2013. The West of Rift region’s production slid 4.7 percent in the six months to 131.97 Mkg from 138.48 Mkg, reversing gains in East of the Rift, which produced 7 percent more at 93.22 Mkg compared to 87.14 Mkg a year ago.
Tea production in India is facing the heat, quite literally. Adverse weather conditions - below than normal monsoon and high temperatures have severely hit the industry, with a whopping 18 million (average) lower yield during the first half of the year.On all-India level, production fell 4.5 percent to 381 Mkg in the first six months of 2014 from 399 Mkg in the same period a year ago. Changing weather pattern in the north India, especially in the eastern states is to be blamed.
If one analyses month wise, prices of all tea at Indian auctions, then up to July this year, tea price at all India level have fallen to Rs.124.20/kg (provisional) from Rs.128.86/kg in the same period last year.In South India, tea prices slipped to Rs.87.06/kg (provisional) from Rs.102.53/kg in the same period a year ago. Prices in North India also witnessed a dip to Rs.144.01/kg (provisional) from Rs.142.58/kg up to July 2013.Of the 19.78 Mkg shortage, as much as 17.83 Mkg has happened in India. Here again, North India accounted for the bulk of shortage. North Indian production declined by 22.27 Mkg, while South India’s output rose by 4.44 Mkg. Collectively, India produced 380.93 Mkg against last year’s 398.76 Mkg.
China is the world’s largest tea producing country but exports relatively little black tea. Exports decreased by 2.76 percent in 2014. Declines are exacerbated by the fact that demand continues to rise due to increased consumption per capita and population gains. Increasing numbers entering the middle class in countries including Brazil, Russia, India and China also lead to greater tea purchases.In many instances however, increased sales are from canned and bottled tea, which require smaller volumes of tea. In China for example, bottled tea has increased its share of China’s beverage market over the past decade – from 7 percent of the total domestic beverage volume in 2000 to 26 percent in 2013.
Sri Lanka produced 172.51 Mkg during the first half of the year, which is 1.55 Mkg less than 2013, when it was 174.06 Mkg but a report released more recently indicates a total production of 255.7 Mkg, up to September, an increase of 7.2 Mkg.However, exports during the first half of the year have increased by 8.66 percent and the Colombo auction average price has also been attractive, recording US$3.68/Kg as against US $ 3.33Kg in 2013
To sum-up, now, along with other major tea growers, the Sri Lankan tea industry faces an uncertain future due to climate change. Pests and volatile weather patterns threaten an industry already beset by increased competition and rising labour costs. Along with other indulgences we take for granted, such as chocolate and coffee, climate change poses the threat of collapse to the tea industry. Therefore, we need to redefine the way the industry should work. Lowering COP, quality compliance, ethical sourcing – including welfare and health and safety standards – and importantly, efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change are all expected to be important in this effort.