Climate Change and Tea’s Future
The impact of climate change on the planet is becoming increasingly visible. The breakage of the Larsen C ice shelf and resultant trillion-tonne iceberg is one of the biggest identifiers of climate change so far. While Antarctica sits in darkness, we thought it would be prudent to shed some light on the impact of climate change on our favourite beverage.
As one of the most economically important crops on Earth, tea is crucial to livelihoods globally. Climatic factors such as rainfall, temperature, humidity and CO2 concentration impact the tea plant’s growth. Variations in these can cause a significant change in the yield of crop. Long term climate change will inevitably affect the future of our beloved tea plant.
Farmers noticed that the East Asian monsoons were arriving earlier and lasting longer with climate change
Farmers noticed that the East Asian monsoons were arriving earlier and lasting longer with climate change. Researchers found that the monsoon season was ending later, and bringing heavier rainfall. These conditions are associated with reduced tea yields, possibly because it is harder to harvest and dry the leaves. The lengthier monsoons also reduced tea quality.
Selena Ahmed, an ethnobotanist led a 2014 study that researched a variety of Chinese tea samples, including tea harvested from the same fields at different times of the year and tea from varying elevations. The study showed that rains prompted faster leaf growth but it also found that important metabolites, which are partly responsible for the flavour, aroma and antioxidant content, dropped by 50 percent.
While nuances in quality may not matter as much in crops like wheat or corn, when it comes to tea, small differences matter a greatly.
“You can grow wheat to have more protein, but most is grown for yields, and much less for the quality,” says Colin Orians, a plant biologist at Tufts – who carried out a study on climate change and tea.
“Tea is one crop where quality is really important to the final product.”
Tea yields in North-east India will decline by up to 40 percent by 2050
Climate risk is also high in Assam. The intense monsoon rains lead to annual flooding of the Brahmaputra River and seasonal droughts impact, too. Trends show that the mean minimum temperatures have increased and the mean precipitation has decreased. It is predicted that the temperature will continue to increase and the number of rainy days will decrease.
The impacts will significantly affect crop productivity and the livelihoods of the communities. Tea yields in North-east India will decline by up to 40 percent by 2050, according to estimates.
The researchers at Tufts University offered blind samples of pre-monsoon and post-monsoon tea to consumers. On a scale of likeability the consumers preferred the pre-monsoon tea. They described the pre-monsoon tea as ‘floral, honeyed and balance’ compared to ‘metallic, grassy and hay-like’.
The tasters opinions were reinforced when they were told that climate change had affected the quality.
“When consumers knew what they were drinking, they liked the pre-monsoon tea even more, and that difference was statistically significant,” said Rebecca Boehm a doctoral student in the Friedman School.
“We found that they were willing to pay a significant premium for spring tea and tea with a lower carbon footprint.”
Farmers will continue learning lessons as they adapt to the ever-changing climate to keep producing quality teas
Farmers are already adjusting to the changing conditions. During 2013 an extreme heatwave in eastern China could have destroyed that year’s crop.
Bob Heiss, an author and co-owner of Tea Trekker said: “Farmers there took the time to find out from people who had similar drought or heat problems. When you should apply water to the bushes so you don’t make the problem worse.”
Farmers will continue learning lessons as they adapt to the ever-changing climate to keep producing quality teas.
Rick Stepp, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, said “The amount of effort farmers have put in over hundreds and hundreds of years has really created all this variety of teas and production methods. They’re just doing it in the field and seeing what happens.”
Evidence suggests that our ever-changing climate will seriously impact the future of the cup of tea. However if the farmers continue to change their methods then there may be hope yet. The next time you go to make a pot of tea, just think if there’s anything you can do that might make a difference in the future.
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