All true tea comes from the plant Camellia Sinensis. It is grown on nearly every continent on Earth, however the majority of production is concentrated in China, India, and Kenya. There are a variety of ways that tea is grown from heavily managed tea plantations where plants are only kept for about a maximum of three years before being tossed out to ancient wild forests. When considering buying sustainable tea there are five major factors to examine; soil, water, pest management, transportation/carbon footprint, and labor.
We first consider soil because not only does the quality of soil have an effect on the end product that we consume, but also the plant itself has an effect on the soil and therefore the surrounding ecosystem beyond the tea farm. Tea requires a soil rich in nitrogen, preferably ammonium, in order to grow healthily and produce its desired theanine and caffeine. This means that the plants need to have a source of fertilization whether from decaying surrounding biomass such as dropped leaves, commercial fertilizers, or agricultural fertilizers such as manure. Depending on the climate and the positioning of the tea farm, the way that the fertilizer is applied can also affect nearby water sources and thus surrounding ecosystems. Tea farms that use commercial fertilizers will likely still leave the soil of their farm greatly depleted and contaminate local water sources such as rivers or groundwater supplies. These will usually be the large scale farms which require efficiency to operate profitably. Some larger scale farms are able to use natural compost fertilizers, but that is often something a smaller garden can do more easily and profitably. Wild tea forests harvested for tea (almost exclusively found in some areas of Eastern Asia) rely on natural fertilization sources such as surrounding decaying plants and wild animal manure. Some modern farms are exploring ways of mimicking this natural fertilization system too.
The next factor to consider is water. As briefly touched upon this is related to the issue of soil. However there are two further reasons to consider the issue of water when deciding where to source your tea from. Tea requires a considerable amount of water to grow. Some tea plants such as the purple variety have been cultivated in order to be more drought tolerant, but much of tea is not. If planted in an area without sufficient natural water tea can drain the groundwater supply, harming the local ecosystem. Furthermore the water that the tea uptakes will naturally impart some of what it contained. If the tea is planted in an area where the groundwater supply is contaminated by other agricultural or mining operations then that can damage the plants and possibly leave trace concentrations of heavy metals in the final product. Higher elevation rural farms with reliable rainfall and fog as their main sources of water may have better chances of being uncontaminated.
This then brings us to the issue of pest management. As with every living thing, tea has some natural predators in the insect and fungal world and weed world. There are multiple ways to combat pests and many different available pesticides. Tea itself produces natural pesticides such as caffeine. In order to protect their yields, large tea plantations often use pesticides to control or prevent pests. Without getting too deep into the issue of pesticides specifically, the main thing to consider here is actually how strict a country’s laws are about pesticide useage and safety and how strictly those laws are enforced as well as how easy it is to apply those pesticides and even whether or not they’re wanted. One common misconception about a particular tea, Oriental Beauty (Dongfang Meiren) is that because its processing requires it to be bitten by a particular pest that no pesticides at all are used on these plants. However there are still weeds that farmers might use herbicides against or harmful fungi. Since transporting pesticides up into remote mountainous regions is difficult, it is less likely that pesticides are used on wild tea trees.
However the more remote that a tea forest is the more carbon will be needed to transport the finished good to international markets. Furthermore wild tea trees have significantly lower yields than large plantations or even small to mid sized farms and the per-unit carbon cost will also substantially increase. In this respect farms closest the consumer are likely to have the lowest transportation/carbon-footprint cost.
Finally we come to the issue of labor. Depending on the region, tea farmers and tea pickers can be treated extremely differently. In the modern age living costs have increased, wages have increased, and young people’s interest in being tea farmers has dramatically decreased. This has led to some farms in rural and poorer regions relying on human trafficking in order to get the labor they need to pick all of their tea. Estates in India are known for housing their tea pickers/producers in small towns nearby. The BBC did an investigation into some of these estates at one point and found many of the tea workers were living in deplorable conditions, being refused wages, and instances of illegal child labor as well. This is not true of all Indian tea estates, but it’s a reminder that we as consumers must pay attention to the issue of labor in addition to the environmental aspects of our tea. Some teas are more likely to be mechanically harvested than others such as the case with most Japanese teas. This increases the carbon footprint to an extent, however the people who work on the farms are more likely to be paid livable wages and live in good conditions.
In many of the aforementioned respects, small producers who produce primarily from wild tea forests are most likely to be doing so sustainably. However for Western markets and especially mid-to-lower level prices that leaves consumers with very little tea to consume, not to mention it is nearly impossible for the average consumer to be able to distinguish wild tea from farmed tea on their own. So how do tea consumers trust what they’re drinking and know how it was produced? Look to the suppliers. Many tea shops go through wholesale tea suppliers to get their products. Their names and descriptions and offerings will all sound very similar and it is rather unlikely that the owners of the tea shops know where they are selling from or the conditions under which the tea was produced. However there are wholesalers such as Tealet which care greatly about sustainability and go through great lengths to visit the tea farms themselves and confirm all aspects of sustainability before putting bids on their teas and selling them abroad. Many small tea stores also source the tea themselves by visiting farms abroad as well. Consumers can look for this by reading tea shop owners blogs, talking to the tea shop owners, and asking questions about the discussed important aspects of tea production sustainability. Tea is a fantastic drink with consumption continuing to grow worldwide. Without sustainable practices in production it’s future will end up in jeopardy.
One of the best sources of tea information in English: