Our world has been completely upended by COVID-19. Here in Michigan we are entering three weeks of a stay-at-home order, following nearly two weeks of partial shutdown earlier enacted. At the moment, we’re ranked #5 of the fifty states for confirmed virus cases and #2 for number of deaths. Grim statistics.
Concomitant with worry about everyone’s health is concern for the world’s economy. Valid concerns certainly, because at the other end of the virus, what will be left?
But we are resilient, and even as the virus ravages, we do what we can to keep industries intact enough so that there’s something to resurrect at some point. In the tea world, here are just a few examples of what’s being done as well as some of the ongoing concerns.
Being the first to experience this virus, China took measures to keep the tea industry going, when and where they could.
They harvested only what they could process and enacted strict measures to keep workers separated, both in the garden (some harvests begin in China as early as mid-February) and in production facilities. Cell phone apps tracked movement so if someone became sick, other employees would know if they were at risk. It helped that most workers live within walking distance so transportation wasn’t an issue.
China’s tea industry impacts many of us worldwide:
It takes 80 million rural laborers in China to annually produce 2.56 million metric tonnes of mainly green tea on 3 million hectares of land. Their effort results in half of the world’s annual tea production of 5.2 million metric tons. (Bolton 2/25/2020; emphasis mine)
Just earlier this month, there were already concerns because, due to virus-imposed travel restrictions, European and Japanese buyers couldn’t get to the Darjeeling gardens to place orders. Most Darjeeling tea is exported, and with gardens still struggling to recover from strikes of years past, sales are critical.
Furthermore, first-flush Darjeeling tea is crucial to India because the tea’s high quality commands high prices, meaning it accounts for some 30–40% of the gardens’ profits. This first harvest begins in March and runs through April, but now India has just entered three weeks of total lockdown.
Assam, known for its unique, malty, tea, also begins harvesting in March, and they too depend on this harvest, especially as they’ve struggled with the repercussions of climate change in recent years.
As China recovers from COVID-19, they are looking to place orders for India’s black tea, which is produced from leaves that will be harvested in late spring (second flush). Again, with the current lockdown, the future is uncertain.
The Mombasa Tea Auction—which offers tea from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique and Ethiopia—may be suspended, according to an account this past Friday.
The pandemic has meant that prices are low and that a lot of tea isn’t even selling at the auction. China is a heavy importer of CTC tea (Africa produces primarily CTC tea), and with conditions worldwide being what they are, the import-export business is taking a hit.
Generally, around 32% of the world’s tea exports are from Africa, with 22% of that from Kenya alone, so this is a problem. Shuttering the auction will affect 600,000 small-scale farmers and workers, not to mention the impact on those in the warehouse and transportation industries. In Kenya, tea is harvested year-round so it’s not known if this disruption will be merely that, a disruption, or if it’ll be enough to ruin growers so that they won’t be able to rebound.
The World Tea Conference + Expo postponed their annual June event in the United States until October. Although this may not seem a big deal to most of us, this gathering of industry professionals showcases new products, runs educational programs, encourages networking, and so one, which impacts what products we end up seeing on our grocery shelves.
Shipping costs and logistics are also a nightmare for many. Fewer flights mean less cargo room which means drastically higher transportation costs. Small independent businesses cannot afford these costs, and now is not the time to pass increased costs on to their customers.
At shipping ports, there aren’t enough workers, and when vessels from a “severe outbreak” country are involved, minimizing risk with stricter sanitation measures, quarantines, and so on are involved. As of today, 24 countries are on this list: South Korea, Italy, Iran, Japan, France, Spain, Germany, USA, UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Netherland, Austria, Australia, Malaysia, Greece, Czech Republic, Finland, Qatar, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.
It’s More Than Tea
Tea trails only water in world consumption, and many of us cannot imagine not having it. However, it’s an agricultural crop that depends on favorable weather. And on us humans.
Definitely support the tea industry, especially the small business owners, by having a cup of your favorite brew. But also spare a thought for the countless people who brought those tea leaves to you—and remember that we all live on this one planet together, and that we all have to do the best that we can, for all our sakes.
–Bolton, D., “The coronavirus impact on China’s tea harvest,” World Tea News, 2/25/2020.
–”COVID-19: Coronavirus outbreak – impact on shipping *update,” Industry News, North, 3/24/2020.
–Ghosal, S., “China keen on buy but tea output, auction disrupted,” Economic Times, 3/23/2020.
–”Mumbasa tea auction process,” East Africa Tea Trade Association, accessed 3/24/2020.
–Press Trust of India, “Mumbai coronavirus trouble for Indian tea, exports likely to be hit,” Republic, 3/12/2020.
–Sanga, B. “Looming shutdown of tea auction sends jitters in EAC,” Standard Digital, 3/20/2020.
Teas shown here are available online at TeaHaus.