The tea industry provides a vital source of employment and export earnings, often in the world’s poorest countries. And a vast chain or network of people have a relationship with tea, not just consumers, but growers, pickers, traders and sellers, impacting on the lives and well-being of millions of people across the world. However, the future of this much-loved beverage is uncertain as the global tea sector faces some unprecedented challenges; a shift in consumer demand and habit, a changing climate, resource constraints and mechanisation of farming are converging to put pressure on an industry which recognise its need to act if it is to create a sustainable future.
Tea has a huge economic and social significance, with millions of people relying on it to support their lives and well-being, and yet the industry faces unprecedented challenges. The challenges are too big for any one company to address alone; rather they need the co-operation of all parts of the value chain working together. The activities of tea industry fall into two categories: production of tea and manufacturing & marketing of tea. Many industries face huge amount of problems like lack of capital and modern machinery, lower market value of made tea in comparison to increasing production cost, lower yield per hectare in comparison to increasing domestic need and lack of modern techniques for measuring quality of tea. Declining tea prices and increasing costs have had serious implications on the living standards of tea growers as well as the workers. The very survival of the industry and, therefore, the interests of the consumers who are in need of a health giving beverage at an affordable price are at stake.
Changes in climate have socio-economic impacts on the tea estates and plantations themselves as they must deal with meeting additional expenses to maintain production which cannot be addressed by increasing tea prices, if they want to compete in the international tea market. It faces competition for land, as well as higher costs of key resources, such as energy and water, and it must cope with changing consumer habits and changing trade patterns and ensure that all workers and smallholders have fair living conditions and income.
Some of the issues the estates have had to deal with in recent years include are erosion of top soil due to uncharacteristic heavy rainfall patterns, which has a negative impact on production; increased use of fertilizers to maintain soil fertility; increased usage of pesticides, particularly during the dry season, as tea gardens are increasingly being damaged by pests that were dormant in the past; and addressing longer dry seasons and heavier rains, some tea estates, especially in India, have begun using irrigation systems to increase yields. The increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as building and maintaining irrigation systems have significantly increased the cost of production.
Quality tea has to be made to satisfy the prescribed criterion of the European countries especially Maximum Residue Level (MRL) value of pesticides to restore its name and fame. The effects of climate change on the tea economy and the justifying measures that should be adopted are not yet well understood. Thus the threats to tea are many and varied.
In a world of limited resources and rapidly growing populations, tea may increasingly find itself crowded out. The world’s population is set to grow by a third by 2050, increasing demand for food by up to 70%, according to the United Nations. And much of this population growth will be in rapidly-developing countries such as China and India specifically those that produce the most tea. It is 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. So serious are these threats, that some of the world’s biggest tea companies are joining forces to combat them.