• john snell

"Something is wrong in the state of Denmark or The chasm between global tea production and consumers

Firstly, apologies to Denmark. I love the country and the inhabitants, I have met, but the phrase is apt in that it talks to a troubling state which is indeed present in the tea world.

Organic tea sales are growing at a time when organic producers are failing to make ends meet, the latest decision being taken by Sewpur in Assam who, faced with rising costs and downward price pressure in target markets are forced to revert to conventional practices to sustain the business and the thousands of workers and their families who rely on it. So why the issue and what should Consumers be supporting?

These days, there isn't a retailer that would suggest that conventionally grown product is as good as organically farmed and yet the reality is not always as simple as that and especially for something like tea.

Of course, all farmers, including those in tea, would ideally put nothing on their crops but that is not the reality for the majority, who cannot yet rely on organic practices to deliver yields and returns that make them whole.

If we are being honest, our choice to buy organic tea is about self protection (not ingesting any chemical residues) rather than a vote for the farmer. And, it would be great if we could be assured that organic product is that, absolutely clean tea (no chemical traces) and supported planet and farmers, at the same time.

But, it is rarely, a farm first thought process; there is not a a great deal of concern for the farm (er) in this purchase decision (be honest!) but let's go there.

I suspect that not everyone would understand that there is a reduction in yield expected by transitioning from conventional to organic or, if intuitive, by how much. Would 25% surprise you and what would your boss say to you if your productivity decreased by such a number??

Oh and did I mention that, in the case of tea, organic is more labour intensive (obvious really), the need to manually weed, to physically isolate pest attacks and that the production and handling of organic inputs are just some of the added requirements of this farming method. So, back to your environment and your boss, having heard that your productivity is going down, now he has to consider hiring more people; the day just gets better and better!

Oh but it's worth it, right? You pay more for your organic goods and the farmer gets all that additional revenue to cover the above? Well, no, not all of the time and that's where the Shakespearean quote starts to ring true. Not all grades and not all tea of any grade is necessarily procured by organic consumers. It may be purchased by non-organic packers looking for a "cleaner" product to blend down with other poorly managed conventional raw materials, in order to meet certain import/ customer specifications or, indeed, it may just be that the retail environment will not absorb the real cost of processing this way. So all the cost and only some of the premium is a distinct possibility.

Back to you, the consumer.

If I asked you whether you would still be purchasing organic product if there was no guarantee that they were chemical free, would you be still buy organic rather than a product that was slated as "free of agrochemical residues" (not a marketers dream I grant you!)?

This is not meant to be an accusatory text but rather a process mapping to sanity in the relationship between consumer and producer. It requires more than a pretty picture of a smiling tea plucker or some stamp of verification to elicit investigation, in fact it is these very artefacts that prevent questions being asked. But let's ask anyway! Do we know for instance that, in tea, the carbon footprint of organic production is actually higher than average conventional production so, not only does this represent (in some cases) an unsustainable production model but it can have a negative impact on CO2e (global warming gas emissions)?

Do we also understand that an organic stamp verifies that certain conditions were employed during the production process of that tea, that controls what inputs are used in the process but makes allowances for certain residues, that may occur from other external or historical sources (This is as true for fruits and vegetables as for tea).

Now that I have thrown a few spanners into the cognitive process, with respect support for organics, let me be clear, chemical free agriculture should be a long term goal but has to balanced against productivity and environmental impacts!

It is right that all products be produced with the lowest possible (negative) impacts to Flora, Fauna and the planet, as a whole, but we need to have eyes wide open to the impacts to people too. When procuring anything that carries a claim and/or transparency claims (another B2C engagement that comforts but does not always provide) dig deep, ask questions (of multiple sources) and weigh up the evidence. Knowledge is power, it takes effort to (L)earn but it empowers those that make the effort.

PS: BTW, tea "done right" comes out really quite favourably against many other crops. Sip in peace!

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