The size and level of devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy have left many of us wondering how such a storm came to be and if it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience or are these types of severe weather events the new normal? The primary concern, of course, is for the protection of life and property during a storm event. Yet, although less dramatic than a hurricane, the steady march of incremental climate change could be leading to even more profound changes in our food supply, where we can safely live, our quality of life and most importantly for tea devotees, the availability of good tea.
Changing weather patterns have altered traditional rainy seasons, increased localized flooding and extended periods of drought causing tea farmers and climate scientists to be concerned about the future of growing tea in some of the largest tea producing countries in the world. While these concerns would apply equally to the top 3 tea producing regions of the world, (China, India and Sri Lanka), a significant body of research has been conducted in tea growing areas in Africa, particularly Kenya, Malawi and Uganda.
Tea plants grow best in a combination of balanced natural conditions including proper soil, slope of the land, elevation of the tea farm and the optiumum ranges of rain or irrigated water, sunlight, and temperature. Tea farms located in higher elevations on foothills or mountainsides tend to produce a better quality tea although at a slow pace since the tea plant has to work harder to produce new tea buds and leaves. Tea farms at lower elevations with warmer temperatures grow more quickly and continue producing new tea leaves for a longer period throughout the year without going dormant in the winter. Regardless of their location, up the mountain or down in a valley, tea plants are not particularly drought resistant and the quantity and quality of tea as well as the overall health of the tea plant can suffer if changes to traditional climate patterns become untenable.
A recent report by the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich and the Fairtrade Foundation states about the production of tea in Kenya and other tea growing countries in East Africa, "...the probability of increased variability in rainfall will increase the vulnerability of tea plants to drought stress. In East Africa, tea production is likely to become less viable at the lower levels of the current altitudinal range within the next few decades. A reduction in quality is also likely to occur in some [tea] varieties as temperatures increase at higher altitudes."
Perhaps all but the youngest of tea drinkers takes note that the report says these changes are going to occur in "the next few decades" and shrugs, bad tea or no tea is the next generations problem, not mine, pour another cup. To assume that the problem is decades away is to incorrectly believe that tea farmers will continue to stick with tea until at some point in the future they have to give up and make a change. That future has begun to appear now, before 2001 in Malawi only 9 districts were classified as flood-prone, by the end of 2003 the number had increased to 22 districts. As one small tea farmer for over 30 years notes, "Because of this changing weather and the new diseases it brings, between 70-80% of [tea plant] seedlings we plant do not survive... [those] that survive are just replacing the bushes that die each year." When you consider that from the time a seedling is replanted to starting to get a harvest from that tea plant takes 4-5 years, how are small scale tea farmers to survive?
In Uganda, a 2011 report by the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical offers another option to tea farmers, "Overall the report concludes that the serious loss of suitability for growing tea in future climate predictions highlights the importance of crop diversification in Uganda." In other words, the handwriting is on the wall, grow something other than tea that is better able to withstand the climate conditions that are evolving into the "new normal". Less tea for you and me.
Although we point out what appears to be a significant challenge looming in the near future for tea producing countries, regrettably, we don't really have any magical solution to offer. Farm more sustainably, hope that as climates shift new areas open up for tea production that used to be unsuitable, and on the Frankenscience front, there is always the possibility of developing hardier, drought resistant tea plant varieties. Just as the intensity of a storm event keeps us focused on the present - the next hour, the next day, the next week - maybe the knowledge that the production of tea that has continued over 2,000 years might change dramatically in our lifetime will cause us to pause and appreciate every cup a little bit more.