What tea drinker wouldn’t click on the headline “‘Tea Industry Gasping for Survival,‘” recently posted in The Hindu? It practically screams eminent demise!
A Tempest in the Tea Cup?
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be merely a case of sensationalism. Rather, it’s potentially a looming crisis.
India’s Consultative Committee of Planters’ Associations (CCPA)* contends that climate change is at least partly to blame, contributing to the many problems faced by the tea industry:
- prices have stagnated
- labor and other costs have increased (in Assam, for example, wages rose over 20% last year)
- there is too much tea
- transaction costs are too steep
- and the cautiously worded “fair price discovery challenges at the auctions”
Concomitant with these problems is that, per capita, Indians don’t drink as much tea as other tea-drinking nations, contributing to that oversupply. (Despite the Brits’ early-20th-century campaign pushing their own version of the beverage; see The Tea We Call Chai.)Kenya too, also primarily a black tea producer and exporter, has its own excess of tea—adding to overall oversupply, competition, and falling prices.
Further, it doesn’t help that there’s been lots of attention on a rare Assam tea, Maijan Orthodox Golden, breaking records with 70.4 ounces going for $2,035! Such headlines mask the problems that the tea industry, as a whole, is currently facing.
With India second only to China in tea production worldwide, how the country responds to this crisis will definitely have repercussions. But when an agricultural crop is no longer lucrative, the farmer must change course, no?
The problem, of course, is that switching to a different crop isn’t so easy when the current crop is entrenched in culture.
Huge swaths of metro Detroit lie empty, idle, not able to successfully change course during the years that the auto industry took a hit, when outsourcing became economically necessary, when requisite job skills shifted, when demand dropped. It’s not easy to retrain an entire workforce or to set up the infrastructure to produce something different—or even to get people to understand that what they’ve known for decades isn’t sustainable.
Keeping the Kettle On
Producing higher-quality tea is one possibility. Although that takes time to develop, better teas bring higher prices. And with more people seeking out high-quality, organic, fair trade, etc., now is a good time to speak to that market.
Meanwhile, the Indian Tea Association† and the CCPA* are trying to save the industry by asking that:
- the government “keep up prices of more ordinary products”†
- new tea gardens not be allowed in key areas
- tea estates be allowed to diversify, for at least part of their property
- schools and hospitals within the gardens be instead run by the government
- the government, at least temporarily, pay the employers’ portion of the provident fund
- there be a minimum price, based on production costs, at auction, and that they no longer must sell 50% of their tea at auction
- public money be dedicated to promoting homegrown tea
Like anything in life, change takes commitment, time, money, effort, collaboration—all those things that are hard to wrangle out of people, no matter how pressing the need.
What can we do?
Continue to buy tea from sources that bring you tea from small farmers and from the gardens that work toward fair practices and sustainability.
And in the very least, be especially aware and appreciative of all that goes into every cup of tea that you drink.
Many, many ordinary people have been involved in bringing that tea to you, with tea being an agricultural product that requires a suitable environment and climate, care, harvesting, production, etc.
Awareness can be the first step toward change.
“Kenyan tea glut pushes prices to multi-year lows, trade body says,” by D. Miriri, Reuters, 8/2/19.
*”Tea industry gasping for survival,” The Hindu, 8/22/19.
†”Record price for rare Assam tea: 2 kg of Maijan Orthodox Golden sold for US$ 2.035,” MercoPress, 8/3/19.