Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world, next to water. More than 2.5 million tons of tea were produced around the globe in 1990. About 75 percent of the tea produced today is black; about 23 percent is green; and about 2 percent is oolong. While the age-old health benefits of tea continue to come to the fore of modern health-consciousness, the production of tea may be anything but healthy for the earth—and some agricultural techniques may even harm human health.
According to WWF, the number one environmental impact of tea production is habitat loss. Tea is often cultivated in remote areas populated by diverse wildlife. Converting these areas to make them suitable for tea production—which often means clearcutting the land to make room for vast tea plantations—disrupts habitat, leading to species reduction. For example, in India, tigers are no longer found in the tea-growing region, which is comprised of more than 1 million acres in northern India that were once grasslands, marshes, and forests that were home to many species, including elephants, tigers, and deer.
Soil erosion and degradation
The practice of growing just one crop where once a multitude of plant and animal species thrived also leads to decreased water retention, increased water run off, and soil erosion. In Sri Lanka, more than 75 percent of tea plantations are in the hill country or on sloping lands, areas which are prone to soil erosion. Exacerbating the problem, a number of plantations have been abandoned due to low productivity, which causes severe soil erosion.
The use of the land to grow just one crop continuously also leads to soil degradation, depleting soil nutrients, increasing the number of toxins in the soil, and lowering oxygen levels. Research has shown that tea plantation soil contains between one-third and one-half the number of earthworms per square meter as the nearby natural forest soil, an indication that soil health is poor. To combat the lower yields brought on by this degradation, farmers use more and more chemicals to treat the crop and maintain productivity. The chemicals further degrade the soil, leading to even lower yields, and a vicious cycle is born. What’s more, as the soil degrades, more and more of the chemicals sprayed on the crops erode or wash away, polluting water systems and local ecosystems.
Chemical pesticides and fertilizers
As with all conventional farming, chemicals in the form of fertilizers, fumigants, insecticides, and pesticides can successfully increase yields—but also cause serious environmental and health concerns. A 2003 study by CHOICE found that 21 out of 55 teas contained traces of chemical pesticides—seven out of 17 green teas, eight out of 20 black teas, and six out of 18 herbal infusions.
One soil fumigant commonly used in the tea-producing region of Sri Lanka, methyl bromide, is known to be an ozone-depleting chemical. A common chemical used in the production of Darjeeling tea in India is monocrotophos, an organophosphate used to kill insects and mites and listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as highly hazardous. Monocrotophos is a nerve toxin that can cause weakness, blurred vision, profuse perspiration, confusion, and vomiting. Darjeeling residents suspect a link between pesticide exposure and ailments prevalent in the area and among the 50,000 workers who tend the gardens. Chemicals long banned from American agricultural products, such as DDT and Dursban, have been found in green tea from China as recently as 2002.
While debate flourishes over whether the amount of chemicals found in tea poses health risks, the effects of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on the environment are well documented. The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in conventional tea production destroys ecosystems surrounding plantations, pollutes soil and water, threatens wildlife, and puts the health of farmers themselves at risk. Another common practice in conventional farming is the use of genetically modified organisms, which have been shown to pose significant environmental risks, such as killing off living, natural organisms and creating pests that are immune to pesticides.
Fresh tea leaves must also be dried, a process that requires significant amounts of energy. Most of this energy is acquired through wood burning, which can lead to deforestation in tea-producing areas. In Sri Lanka, for example, between 1.5 and 2.5 kilograms of wood must be burned to produce 1 kilogram of tea. In 1992, Sri Lanka’s tea sector used 455,000 metric tons of wood for fuel, consuming over 43 percent of the fuelwood used by industry.
- bnet - World tea situation in brief
- United States Department of Agriculture – Brewing Up The Latest Tea Research
- American University - TED Case Studies: India Tea and Environment
- ESCAP Virtual Conference - Sectoral Environmental Assessment (SEA): Tea Sector
- Choice.com – Pesticides in Teas
- Pesticide Action Network - News Note: Pesticides in Darjeeling Tea
- WWF – Agrisulture and Environment: Tea