Climate change affects everything from the Earth’s atmosphere to migration patterns. It is a crisis that requires immediate attention. This extends to the effects of climate change on Tea production, which has become increasingly noticeable in recent years. If something isn’t done soon, the livelihoods of millions of people could be at stake.

Our article will first establish some general climate change facts and figures before investigating the effects of climate change on Tea production. We will explore the areas most at risk, including Kenya in East Africa and the Darjeeling Tea industry in India. Finally, we will show you what The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company is doing to make a difference.

What is Climate Change?

What is Climate Change? 

The Earth’s average temperature is about 15°C. However, it has fluctuated over the billions of years of its existence. While climate scientists agree that it is a natural phenomenon, there is little doubt that humans have had a dramatic influence. Temperatures are rising faster than ever before, which experts predominantly link to the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse effect is where the sun’s solar energy gets trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is absorbed by greenhouse gases and then re-emitted in all directions. This heats both the lower atmosphere and the planet’s surface, a process that keeps the planet warm enough for life. But humans are contributing to the natural greenhouse effect, increasing temperatures further.

Carbon dioxide (Co2) is a greenhouse gas known for persisting much longer than others. A significant amount is produced from burning fossil fuels, while cutting down carbon-absorbing forests releases even more. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in about 1750, Co2 levels have risen by over 30%. This is higher than any time in at least 800,000 years.

Fundamentally, the prevalence of Co2 leads to global warming. Not only do our oceans increase in volume when heated; sea levels also rise because of melting ice. The impacts of climate change extend to vegetation and land animals, too, as flowering and fruiting times come earlier, disrupting the ecosystem’s natural balance. And then there is Tea and climate change.

Effects of Climate Change on Tea Production

Effects of Climate Change on Tea Production

The truth is that our climate change definition has barely scratched the surface of the problem. Indeed, despite explaining the basics of the causes of climate change, there remain many more issues. Not least are the challenges faced by the worldwide Tea industry. Production is threatened by a range of stresses from rising temperatures to droughts, frosts, pests and diseases.

These factors combined affect the quality and quantity of Tea that farmers can grow. However, it’s worth noting that different areas are affected by the changes in different ways. Perhaps most noteworthy are Kenya in East Africa, Darjeeling District and Assam State in India, and, in the case of Rooibos Tea, the Cederberg region of South Africa.

Climate Change in Kenya and Tea Production

Climate Change in Kenya and Tea Production

Agriculture makes up a sizable part of Kenya’s economy. The Tea sector, in particular, generates about 26% of the total export earnings and about 4% gross domestic product (GDP). However, the effects of climate change are already leading to unstable trends in Tea production. This will inevitably threaten 232,742 hectares of Tea-growing land and over 10% of the population.

The Camellia sinensis (Tea) plant is a rainfed plantation crop heavily dependent on weather for optimal growth. Cultivation takes place in high altitude areas East and West of the Great Rift Valley, typically at elevations between 1,400 and 2,700 metres above sea level. The rainfall here ranges between 1,800 and 2,500 mm annually, though it is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Recent studies have documented stress, especially drought, accounting for 14-20% loss in Kenya Tea yield and 6-19% plant mortality. Experts believe that regions will experience only further increases in the length of dry seasons per year, warmer temperatures and/or extreme rainfall intensity in the future. It will indeed get worse before there’s a chance of it getting better.

Should no action be taken, Kenya Meteorological Services predict that the mean air temperatures could increase by 2% by 2025 and 11% by 2075. Meanwhile, the suitability of Tea growing areas is expected to decline by 8% within five years and 22.5% within fifty-five years. The bottom line is that the effects of climate change on Kenyan Tea production will soon be severe.

Climate Change in India and Tea Production

Climate Change in India and Tea Production

The Darjeeling District of West Bengal, India, is famous for producing the so-called “Champagne of Tea.” The unique climatic conditions of the area contribute significantly to the taste and character of Darjeeling Tea, especially the First Flush of the season. But Darjeeling Tea and climate change is a recipe for disaster - and it’s already happening in real-time.

Locals and scientists alike have observed rising temperatures and rainfall becoming more erratic. The Darjeeling Tea Research and Development Centre (DTDC) conducted a 20-year-study, which showed that maximum temperatures have increased by 0.51°C. It also established that rainfall dropped by 56 mm and relative humidity by 16.07%.

The ideal temperature for growing in the region is between 18°C and 30°C, which is no longer a guaranteed average year after year. Production, as a result, has come down drastically. Statistics suggest that in 2012, the annual Darjeeling Tea production stood at 10 million kg. This fell to 9 million kg in 2017. It’s worth noting that political turmoil that year also influenced the industry.

Darjeeling First Flush Tea, in particular, was once typically harvested from March to mid-May. However, the effects of climate change have advanced it to February due to the temperature increase. There have been more severe rainstorms, too, which has impacted the quality. The heavy rains cause dormancy of the leaves while their textures change.

Climate Change for Tea in Assam, India

Climate Change for Tea in Assam, India

Around one-quarter of the world’s Tea comes from India, more than half of which originates from the northeast state of Assam. The discovery of Assam Tea dates back only 200 years - compare that to the 5,000-year-history of Chinese Tea. However, already, the human-induced impacts of climate change have taken their toll on the industry.

According to a 2018 Survey of Assamese Tea workers, 88% of plantation managers and 97% of smallholders said the adverse climate conditions were a definite threat to operations. Climate change has pushed rainfall in the state to the extremes, causing an overall decrease in precipitation, though with more instances of drought and heavy rain.

These conditions cause the erosion and waterlogging of soil, which then damages root development and reduces the yield of Tea plants. While research from 2016 concluded that drought did not affect output, other evidence indicates that drought increases the Tea plants’ susceptibility to insect pests. It also appears to be affecting the taste and price of the Tea itself.

With more pests comes increased use of pesticides and fertilisers, resulting in rising production costs and posing a potential risk to human health. The exception to the rule is Organic Tea, though such practices aren’t yet widespread. Experts say that these changes have meant that the characteristics of Assam Tea, notably its full-bodied flavour, have been influenced.

Rooibos Tea and Climate Change

Rooibos Tea and Climate Change

The Cederberg region, located in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, is the exclusive home of Rooibos, a type of Herbal Tea. Famously caffeine-free and low in tannins, it is a choice made by many a casual drinker and connoisseur. Yet, like most parts of the world, it isn’t exempt from the damaging effects of climate change on Tea production.

The mountainous environment of Cederberg has always been harsh and drought-prone. Indeed, for centuries, Rooibos Tea (also known as Redbush Tea) has survived temperatures dipping below zero in the winter and above 40°C in the summer. But it’s getting worse. Severe droughts between 2003 and 2006, which affected yields, highlighted the need to address the problem.

Research points to Rooibos plants experiencing a shorter period of water availability in the winter and prolonged exposure to summer conditions in the coming decades. Modelling with these parameters could produce a loss of between 49.8% and 88.7% in bio-climatically suitable areas for growing Rooibos by 2070. This also means that the livelihoods of many are at stake.

The reality is that Africa is the continent least responsible for climate change but the one with the fewest resources to combat it. The African Union estimates that the Co2 emissions of Africa’s one million people are equivalent to those of Texas’s 30 million. Cederberg is on the front line. Without implementing mitigating measures - and soon - it could face the brunt of the crisis.

Fighting Climate Change for the Tea Industry

Fighting Climate Change for the Tea Industry

There is hope, but humanity - particularly the global Tea industry - needs to act fast. One approach gaining traction is agroforestry. This is where workers grow Tea in a forest-like ecosystem with shrubs and trees instead of applying a monoculture in a terraced garden. Agroforestry provides plants with more shade, helping to shelter them from the heat of the sun.

The practice also reduces the amount of moisture that the Camellia sinensis plants lose by transpiration, which protects them from frost while preventing soil erosion. What’s more, if farmers include legumes in these forests, it could enrich the soil through the activities of nitrogen-fixing microorganisms that live in the roots of such plants.

Growing Tea plants from seeds rather than cuttings, too, can have a positive impact, as doing so provides the plants with a deeper, more resilient root system. The result is that they’re better able to survive drought while ensuring the welfare of soil. Other forms of soil conservation include covering it in mulch (to conserve moisture) and couture farming.

Still, even with these measures in place, a global response to the climate crisis is, undoubtedly, required to meet the challenges we are up against. While grassroots work has countless benefits, governments and corporations must fill the enormous gaps still left. The time is now. Not in 2050, certainly not in 2070 or 2075, but 2021. And you can provide support in your own way.

How You Can Help with your Cup of Tea at Home

How You Can Help with your Cup of Tea at Home

The average cup of Tea produces 20g of Co2. As a reference point, the carbon footprint of beer is 374g, a can of cola is 129g, and cow’s milk is 225g. If you were to drink four mugs of Black Tea per day, boiling only as much water as needed, it would amount to 30kg of Co2 each year. This is the same amount as a 40-mile drive in an average car.

The main culprit is nevertheless the dairy milk, indeed more than boiling the water and growing the Tea put together. The simple reason is that cows belch a considerable amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the air. The obvious way to slash your footprint, therefore, is to reduce the amount of milk you consume. Consider a Milk Alternative for Tea instead.

Another factor, as briefly mentioned, is boiling water. Should you boil more water than required (as the majority of people do), you could potentially add 20g to the carbon footprint of each infusion. Doing so wastes time, money and, of course, carbon. The solution is to measure the water needed for the kettle in the mug you intend to use. But then there’s the “how” you boil it.

The most carbon-efficient - and least expensive - way to boil water is an old-fashioned stove-top kettle on an appropriately-sized gas hob. This is better because of uneconomical practices at power stations and distribution systems that make electricity a relatively wasteful and high-carbon way of producing heat. But one question remains: How is our company helping?

We Plant a Tree with Every Online Order

Planting a Tree with Every Online Order

The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company doesn’t pretend to be perfect. There is still more work to be done. However, we like to think that we’ve made a start through our association with Tree-Nation. This organisation coordinates reforestation efforts globally, enabling every person, company and planter to take action. But how, exactly, does it work?

It’s quite straightforward: Every time you place an online order, Tree-Nation will offer you the chance to have a tree planted on your behalf. You will receive an email outlining the required steps, whereby just a couple of clicks makes a tremendous difference. Not only will you learn about the tree species; you will be able to see its location in the world.

Perhaps most important of all, Tree-Nation’s carbon-neutral website has a tool that enables you to see the calculated amount of Co2 offset by your outstanding efforts. And, of course, on top of everything else, you have the finest quality Loose Tea or Coffee packed fresh to order. But even that’s not all. Our family-run business is likewise actively combating plastic pollution.

We have recently introduced Plastic Free Tea Bags, a combination of wood pulp and vegetable starch that, while not a perfect solution, is a dramatic improvement from petrochemical-based products. These are also compostable Tea Bags, enabling you to dispose of them safely and efficiently. And all of it comes without environmentally harmful microplastics.

Conclusion to Tea Production and Climate Change

The effect of climate change on Tea production is profound. From Kenya to Assam, Darjeeling to South Africa, global Tea-growing environments have become unpredictable. It can’t wait any longer. We need to address the challenges now. After all, without looking after Camellia sinensis plants and Coffea (Coffee) plants, The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company wouldn’t exist.

Why not browse our vast selection of Loose Leaf Tea and Fresh Coffee to find the brew for you? We stock a multitude of heavenly delights, including all of those referred to in the article above. And that’s just the beginning. Whether you want Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, Sencha Green Tea or Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, you can count on us to deliver the best of the best.

Author: Richard Smith

Partner at The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company

Richard Smith is a Tea expert, entrepreneur, and owner of The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company. Part of a family of renowned Tea planters dating back four generations, he was born in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, where he spent his childhood between Tea Estates in Assam and Darjeeling.

In the late 1970s, having accumulated years of knowledge in the industry, Mr Smith and his mother, Janet Smith, moved to Kent, South East England, to establish a Tea business in the village of Pluckley. Their early days of packing Tea Bags by hand from chests of 10,000 prompted the creation of the company’s flagship infusion known as Pluckley Tea. It remains our most popular product today.

Mr Smith, who studied economics at London Polytechnic, has since specialised in over 1,000 types of Loose Leaf Tea - in addition to around 70 varieties of Roast Coffee - from around the world. These are now available at The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, where everything is still packed by hand and fresh to order, not only to honour tradition but to ensure the utmost quality and consistency.