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  • Writer's picturejohn snell

Tea and sustainability. Focus on the fundamentals!

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

I am an exasperated onlooker, when it comes to sustainability efforts in the tea and other commodity industries. Yes, I have sat on a few, relevant, boards and have been culpable of supporting quite a few of the programmes that currently reside in the space but, for heaven's sake, focus on the fundamentals!

Far too often, the issues of supply and demand are seen as the purview of commercial partners and not a focus for sustainability "missionaries" within these industries. Yet, the irony is that this is inevitably the root cause of unsustainable farming, the inability to deliver a living wage, for all reliant on a farm, and cover all costs of production from the sale of products produced. Solving this would be a short cut to sustainable livelihoods, more so than any other initiative and reduce/mitigate other issues which stem, directly or indirectly as symptoms of this fundamental.

Am I snubbing the activities of these collaborative initiatives? No, they do good work but it stops short of the real issue. If only they would mandate a focus on where and to whom these teas were going to be sold!

The impacts of Farmer Field Schools are impressive but let's consider the relationship model, financed by large tea packing companies and executed by professional services, conscripted or owned by these sustainable initiative bodies. While there are a myriad of activities that do fall under important technical learning, there is no doubt that the major focus is on producing more from the same land, of the same crop, while lowering inputs/costs.

A laudable objective for the short term, it serves to close the deficit caused by rising costs (inputs and living) and falls in sale price, as has been experienced over the last 5 years in tea! Sorry, did I say 5 years? I meant decade (and that is being "ultra" kind)! In the long term, it serves to exacerbate the crisis these activities attempt to mitigate.

I question whether, had generic commodity sustainability programming not been made available to CPG companies whether we would be in this mess? After all, the primary adoption of such programmes, offering a seal or mark of "approval", was initially part of a risk management strategy which could sustain, not only the brand health of packers and retailers but also the programmers themselves; a virtuous circle of self help without interfering in market fundamentals.

The bonus of these symbiotic relationships has been the eking out of the status quo, where large volumes of cheaper and cheaper tea has continued to be produced through managing farm efficiencies to a point where the practice has remained palatable.

The fact is that only a small minority of certified tea is sold as such in the markets which directs you to where the marketing spend is and advises a gap to close!

I should not let Governments off the hook either, be they as donors or recipients. They are complicit by selecting activity of interest that is politically expedient rather than prioritized by logic. They have, in short, weaponized sustainability activity for political gain.

Governments around the globe have assisted the planting out of more tea. From China to Uganda, these programmes may help but not if uncoupled from appropriate production capacity and marketing focus. Certain players in the industry may not be able to vertically integrate but we must ensure an environment that helps the information from all strata coalesce.

The reality is that tea of a certain stripe is losing share of throat, irrespective of overall consumption gains, and nothing short of a reduction in overall volume and focus on production of relevant styles and qualities (for which read "better") will suffice. I am not throwing the towel in on CTC at all, as some sectors would have us do, but, ironically, this style requires more focus on quality than orthodox in many respects, as it is only experienced on cup colour and taste, plus it is rarely experienced unblended (no pretty leaf to market either)!

I can almost hear the bristling outrage of those that have, with best intentions, spent their professional lives feeding these, laudable, endeavours and I, sincerely, applaud the results of your initiatives. They delivered what they were set out to do! Your work (FFS among others) results in efficiencies , reduction of/and reliance on agrochemicals, OHIS improvements, the tackling of gender issues and fiscal education, all greatly improved, along with mindful management of the ecosystems in which they reside. This is not an attack on the effectiveness of the programming or the endeavour of those initiatives but rather a query as to target acquisition.

If off the mark then why does CTC tea in Africa continue to decline in price and why is more tea still being planted out?? What do we not get?

The FAO understands the importance of tea production to millions of rural households

From conclusions of the FAO IGG on Tea 24th session "Current Global Market Situation and Emerging Issues"

but it also understands that this does not mean unfettered encouragement!

From conclusions of the FAO IGG on Tea 24th session "Current Global Market Situation and Emerging Issues"

Surely the true goal of a programme implementer should be to be unemployed within a predetermined period of time in each sphere that they work, that defines success! Not the continuation of activity and revenue stream from a theatre that continues to fail the fundamental sum of "Receipts from goods produced to be larger than the sum of inputs and living wages for all those dependent on the land " AS A MINIMUM!

It is time for change, it is time for collective financial transparency, beyond rules and individual company remits, to be embedded into the systems of tea commerce, agnostically. An undisputed record of financial inputs and outputs, coupled with region specific living wage data, in order that all can identify and agree whether the sums add up or not. It is time that we make consumption data, relative value data and category trend information part of any sustainable initiative in tea, or other commodity. It is time that we disrupt the current order, which has proven inept at providing the clarity required to give those, most effected by market dynamics, the tools by which to make the right decisions. Sounds too simplistic, the arithmetics of commercial enterprise to the rescue? Well it is but it is ground zero for farmers!

This is not a unique train of thought so, why no consolidated progress on market imbalances, why not more pressure on Governments and direction to Farmers and Producers on how much and what to produce? I suggest it is because it requires great effort and risks laying bear inadequacies in previously fanfared pathways.

It is our more elevated task, trade and professional services alike, to work together rather than competitively to provide the guidance, support and political pressure to systemically alter the environment in which tea works. The smarts are within the industry to direct appropriate programming but capacity is still required from other bodies; this shift, from ownership to support, is one that needs to be adopted by those generic products that have been gifted ownership of "solution provision" by only one end of the sup

ply chain to this point.

Three positives that will come from adoption of this change in focus

1.Better tea at a higher price will drive more Consumer value and interest and help to arrest decline in developed markets.

2.When the fundamental sum is met, farmers and communities are more receptive to "other" topics that need continued and professional intervention, such as those difficult social welfare and environmental topics.

3.When the fundamental sum is not met, clarity to choices (which must be supported) will enable action that will protect those most at risk from an unsustainable existence.

Please, focus on the fundamentals!

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