Reading the Tea Leaves

The first ever International Tea Day, backed by the United Nations, takes place on 21 May. We take a look at the challenges facing the global tea industry, and how it can build back better after COVID-19 to support smallholder farmers and sustainability. 

Tea, one of the oldest estate cash crops, can play a significant role in rural development, poverty reduction and food security.

The tea industry is a main source of income and export revenues for emerging economies and, as a labour-intensive sector, it can provide green jobs, especially in remote and economically disadvantaged areas. But, in most tea-growing countries, farmers and pluckers remain marginalized and poor. COVID-19 is also taking a toll on the industry, with many tea-producing areas seeing falls in output and demand.

 “An increasing amount of the world’s tea is grown by smallholders, but they have not been equal beneficiaries in sustainability programmes, largely because companies who own factories where tea is processed (and may also own a plantation where the factory is situated) do not have the capacity, interest, or resources to set up training programmes in the communities,” says Edward Millard, Director, Landscapes & Communities, at Rainforest Alliance.

From 2014 to 2018, the Rainforest Alliance worked with United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other partners on a four-year Global Environment Facility-funded sustainable tea programme in several Asian countries.

The programme, titled Mainstreaming Sustainable Management of Tea Production Landscapes showed how sustainable soil and land management is a win-win solution especially for smallholders.

“It stood the economic test in countries like Sri Lanka and Viet Nam, where farm costs dropped and tea production was maintained or improved, even during extensive periods of drought,” said UNEP biodiversity expert, Max Zieren.  

While uptake of the project has been slower in larger tea estates, which tend to be more dependent on agro-chemical industries and related companies, still, improvements are being demonstrated and adopted.

Building back better

Building back better post COVID-19 implies investing in sustainable practices for people, nature and local economies, while strengthening resilience to climate change.

 “Applied research, farmer support and financing should favour sustainable practices that benefit farmers and tea pluckers, while discouraging fertilizer subsidies, businesses dependent on agro-industries, and detrimental national price and export practices,” said Zieren.

International Tea Day promotes collective actions to support sustainable production and consumption of tea, and to raise awareness of the industry’s role in reducing poverty and creating livelihoods.

Nature is in crisis, threatened by biodiversity and habitat loss, global heating and toxic pollution. Failure to act is failing humanity. Addressing the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and protecting ourselves against future global threats requires sound management of hazardous medical and chemical waste; strong and global stewardship of nature and biodiversity; and a clear commitment to “building back better”, creating green jobs and facilitating the transition to carbon neutral economies. Humanity depends on action now for a resilient and sustainable future.

UN Environment