With some in the U.S. pretty much declaring the pandemic is about over, that’s really the case only for those vaccinated—and it’s far from true in many other places. The staggering toll that COVID-19 is visiting upon India is sobering. It seems petty to even talk about tea when so many people are suffering. But what does the pandemic mean to workers in the tea industry today, to the economies that depend on tea, and to the global tea supply? From plucker to retailer, many livelihoods depend upon tea.
Growers in Assam and West Bengal have been dealing with drought conditions for the past couple of months, which translates into fewer tea leaves, of lower quality. For the first-flush, the prized “champagne” of tea, up to six inches of rain is ideal but this year some areas had less than an inch.
The pandemic—which is now entrenched in rural areas after ravaging more populated regions—has only exacerbated the situation. Disruptions last year meant that the neglected plants required a month of pruning to bring back into shape. Disruptions this year could impact production as well as transportation of the tea.
Disruptions last year caused price spikes, which allowed lower-priced Kenyan and Sri Lankan tea to move into India’s usual markets. Disruptions this year could again trigger price increases. Couple that with reduced production due to the drought and we may be looking at even fewer Darjeeling and Assam teas available this coming year.
While India’s 2020 tea production was suffering, China handily maintained their market dominance. In Dan Bolton’s comprehensive analysis of China’s tea industry (read here), he details why the country’s tea export value increased in 2020 despite a decreased export volume.
Besides the timing of the pandemic, with China the first to experience its effects—which in 2019 and 2020 occurred mostly prior to tea harvest—the country’s tea industry is also robust and well poised to recover from setbacks. Because the Chinese themselves drink so much tea, that solid foundation allows the industry to mass produce bulk tea for export. Bolton points out that China’s export teas do well both in quality and purity, with many of them Fair Trade certified.
Also, that steady domestic market means a steady income for the tea industry, especially when, as Bolton notes, “tea retailers were quick to adapt to online transactions, delivery, and pickup.” In China, tea’s deep history means that specific teas have developed in each region, and its domestic market appreciates hand-produced specialty teas produced in small quantities.
The thirst for tea, both internally and globally, allows the industry to expand, and currently workers are in demand. In such a situation, wages are good.
China’s tea market is the only country in the world where tea suppliers make the rules. (Bolton 1/11/21)
The situation Turkey currently faces illustrates another facet of the global crisis: the migration of people facilitates migration of the virus. But harvesting generally requires an influx of workers, including in the tea industry.
More than 100,000 people were expected to travel to the Black Sea area this spring, with harvest beginning mid-May. Industry leaders were working to minimize viral spread, discouraging indoor gatherings. Last month, Yusuf Ziya Alim, the director of the country’s tea industry, seemed confident that workers could be kept safe:
I believe this year’s tea season will be much healthier than last year since we all have experience now. (Daily Sabah 4/26/21)
Implementation of online auctions certainly helped Sri Lanka weather the pandemic, and although their 2020 production dropped from the previous year, prices were higher. Further, as noted above, Sri Lanka benefitted when India’s prices skyrocketed.
The Sri Lanka Tea Board website, in a post written this past fall, before vaccines were available, discusses the possibility of black tea helping to fend off the virus. Yes, there are disclaimers, but I always get annoyed at health claims that aren’t substantiated by a preponderance of actual, high-quality, scientific evidence.
Also stepping in when India’s prices spiked, Kenya continues to be one of the world’s top exporters of black tea. The Mombasa Tea Auction, however, was delayed last month when Kenya Tea Development Agency offices were raided by the Directorate of Criminal Investigation as they investigated alleged “price manipulation, insider trading and wastefulness” (Business Daily 4/26/21).
Of more concern, however, is the looming crisis of unstable rainfall patterns caused by global climate change. Tea growers are already seeing ramifications, and they worry that Kenya will become unsuitable for tea. With tea one of the country’s top sources of income, the impact would be widely felt in the country.
The tea industry is complicated, and when countries such as Kenya fill the need, for example, when India’s production fell last year due to the pandemic, we see how we must have producers in multiple regions of the world. If Kenya becomes unsuitable for tea, much of the tea-drinking world will feel the pain. But Kenya wouldn’t be the only country run out of the business by fickle weather. Most tea-growing regions are at risk.
We all know that Ever Given‘s plight disrupted ocean shipping times, but it also raised rates. Still, according to this month’s DHL report:
All available ships are currently sailing. However cargo demand is exceeding maritime capacity.
Ports around the world remain crowded; in the U.S., ships wait over a week, on average, to dock. And in many areas, worker shortages continue, due to the pandemic, causing further delays.
For those of us who are in or close to Canada, this spring has been dry, which means that St. Lawrence water levels are down and therefore ships must carry less cargo.
Air freight continues to be severely impacted, with total cargo capacity slightly better than April 2020 but still some 30% lower than April 2019. Rates in March were 68% higher than in 2019, and 48% higher than last year. Demand, of course, is high, but with restricted capacity, congestion at airports, crew being quarantined, and so on, the imbalance continues.
We will continue to see some disruptions in the tea industry. At TeaHaus, for example, we continue to have high-quality Darjeeling, but each shipment we receive may come from a different garden, depending on availability. Black tea blends may contain teas from different gardens than in years past. We waited months for a shipment of Japanese mulberry leaves to arrive.
All of us—producers, suppliers, transporters, consumers—must adapt, be patient. A global crisis requires global cooperation, understanding, and compassion.
–Bhalla, N. “As climate change threatens Kenyan tea, millions of workers seen at risk,” Reuters, 5/10/21.; Bolton, D., “China tea back on top to stay,” Stir, 1/11/21.; “Covid threat and drought combine to put India’s tea harvest at risk,” On Digital Shop, 5/16/21.;–DHL Airfreight State of the Industry, April 2021.;–DHL Ocean Fright Market Update, May 2021.; “Experts warn of COVID-19 risk amid Turkey’s tea-harvest migration,” Daily Sabah, 4/26/21.; Ghosal, S., “First harvest of tea in Assam, West Bengal hit by dry spell in March,” The Economic News, 5/19/21.; Mghenyi, C. “Wrangles could cost Kenya key tea markets,” Star, 4/24/21.; “Munya explains Mombasa tea auction raid,” Business Daily, 4/26/21.; “Sri Lanka tea industry facing up to new challenges,” Sri Lanka Tea Board, accessed 5/20/21.