Americans consumed more than fifty billion servings of tea in 2003. It's not surprising then that after water, tea is the second-most-consumed beverage in the world. Unfortunately, tea cultivation has a number of destructive environmental aspects.
Tea Growing Conditions
Unlike coffee and cocoa, the tea plant Camellia sinensis thrives in the full sun of subtropical and highland tropic climes. But to be grown in full sun, Camellia must be planted in steep, remote areas on terrain that often hosts high concentrations of vulnerable animals and plants. Converting such landscapes for tea production endangers species and due to the slope of the land, can cause soil erosion. Additionally, since wood is the common source of heat for drying tea leaves, deforestation is common in the tea-growing regions of China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan.
Tea Worker Safety
Worker health and safety is an additional aspect of conventional tea estates, owing to their exorbitant use of pesticides. Most of these hazardous and toxic chemicals are sprayed by casual day wage workers (though illiterate children and adolescents are also given the job) who frequently wear only shorts and no shoes rather than protective gear. The same pesticide chemicals that are banned in Western countries are being used by tea farmers fifteen to twenty times each year, endangering workers and wildlife alike.
Growing tea organically, on the other hand, offers numerous benefits. For example, instead of herbicides and pesticides, soil fertility is improved through the use of compost, natural and organic matter, and plants. Typical organic fields also protect and host more animal species, birds, and wild plants than conventionally cultivated farms. And most importantly, organic cultivation is safer for field workers.
There are more than seventy North American companies and an even wider variety of brands now offering certified specialty tea and herb products, making tea one of the fastest-growing fair trade categories. There are still several U.S. tea companies that haven't expanded their lines to include fair trade, organic offerings. Contact Bigelow Tea Company, Salada/Red Rose, and/or Twinings North America, Inc. to encourage change.
Free Your Tea of the Bag
There's an additional issue for tea-drinkers to concern themselves with, and that is the tea bag. Those who have only ever brewed with tea bags have never actually tasted true tea; they've had what the industry refers to as “dust.” Finely ground tea leaves are what this “dust” is made from, and it's more than likely turned stale before reaching the shelf. So if you brew with tea bags, that strong, harsh taste you're so accustomed to is actually not what tea's meant to taste like at all, but simply the flavor of inferior leaves. In addition, tea bags come with strings, tags, staples, and individual overwrappings or foil envelopes that create 15 hundred tons of landfill waste each year. If you simply buy loose leaves, you won't just cut down on packaging waste, you will finally have yourself a true, full-bodied cup of tea. Brewed leaves are also compostable. But if you're a diehard tea bag brewer that can't be swayed, at least compost them with the rest of your kitchen scraps or yard waste.
If you make the shift to organic, fair trade, loose leaf tea, you'll help conserve forests, defend wildlife, and protect children and adults from unfair labor.