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Climate change threat to tea cultivation

Tea, made from the Camellia Sinesis plant, is one of the world’s oldest and most widely consumed beverages, second only to water.

It has health properties and promotes wellbeing thanks to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and weight loss effects.

In recognition of the long history and profound cultural and economic importance of tea worldwide, the United Nations General Assembly declared 21 May as International Tea Day and asked the FAO to take the lead in this observance.

Tea production and processing is a basic economic source of income for millions of families in developing countries. In addition, the tea industry is a major source of export earnings for some of the world’s poorest countries and creates jobs in remote and economically depressed areas. The sale of tea generates wealth that goes to buy food in countries such as Kenya.


Tea in the world

According to the FAO report “Current market situation and medium term outlook” published in May 2018, the largest producers of black tea in 2017 were India with 1,260,000 tonnes, Kenya with 439,850, Sri Lanka with 305,000 and China with 310,000, while the forecast outputs for 2027 are 1,617,871, 605,915, 370,379, and 554,331 tonnes, respectively.

The report states that global tea production in 2017 stood at 3,333,316 tonnes and forecasts a yield of 4,420,015 tonnes in 2027. Yet the projection for green tea output, with an expected volume of 3,653,792 tonnes in 2027, is somewhat lower.

The main consumption countries for black tea in 2017 were India with a total of 1,040,000 tonnes, China with 302,353 tonnes and Pakistan with 172,911 tonnes, and this is expected to increase to 1,264,359, 541,310 and 250,755 tonnes, respectively, according to the FAO’s projections for 2027.

On the export side, the largest exporter of black tea in 2017 was Kenya with 400,000 tonnes, Sri Lanka with 281,840 and India with 240,680 tonnes, while Kenya is expected to export 524,140 tonnes in 2027, Sri Lanka 335,522 and India 362,932 tonnes.

There are many varieties of tea available, depending on the oxidation and fermentation techniques applied. Some of the best known are white tea, black tea, red tea and green tea.

Although three quarters of the tea grown in the main tea-producing countries is consumed domestically, tea is a widely traded and exported product.


Global consumption trends

Photo by <a href="">Manki Kim</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

 The global tea industry has been growing rapidly over the last 10 years with an increasing number of consumers worldwide, as revealed in the FAO report: “Emerging Trends in Tea Consumption: Informing a generic promotion process”, published in April 2018. And despite this increase, per capita consumption is still low, so there is still ample room for growth.

According to this report, there are five clear trends in current tea consumption:  

  • Innovation and new health-driven consumption trends. This trend includes new added values being attributed to the product such as ready-to-drink (RTD) fruit and flavoured teas, and increased green tea consumption outside Asia. This RTD trend is being driven by the search for an alternative to carbonated beverages.
  • The move from a commodity to premium value. This trend shows how the tea market has shifted from being seen as a commodity, to the current situation where consumers are now willing to pay more money for premium features.
  • Young consumers’ search for a personal experience with a trendy product. This includes experiences in exclusive hotels and restaurants in different countries.
  • Rising per capita incomes and an emerging middle class are driving tea consumption. A growing middle class, especially in the urban environments of these countries, is driving the growth in demand for tea and the willingness of these consumers to pay more for premium varieties.
  • The urgent call for sustainability, supported by a transparent industry and value chain. Modern tea consumers are attracted to tea, seeing it as a healthy and well-balanced beverage. They are also willing to pay more for it because it has attributes that contribute to the environmental, ethical, social and economic growth of the communities that produce it.


Tea and climate change

However, tea production is very sensitive to changes in weather conditions. It can only be produced in specific agro-ecological conditions and in a very limited number of countries that have monsoon climates. This means that climate change has a direct impact on crops.

Changes in temperature, rainfall, floods and droughts are already affecting tea yields and productivity, as explained in the foreword to the documentReport of the working Group on Climate Change of the FAO Intergovernmental Group on Tea”.

Prompted by these concerns and by the dependence of producing and exporting countries on this crop for their national economies, the FAO Intergovernmental Group on Tea (IGG/Tea) resolved to undertake the following:

  • Analysis of the impact of climate change on the tea sub-sector.
  • Appraisal of appropriate technologies and mitigation and adaptation processes to counter this situation.

The findings of this working group have revealed that the decline in tea productivity and yields is due to biotic and abiotic stress, which are directly related to climate.

The application of technology and innovation in agriculture, through the use of biostimulants, increases tolerance to abiotic stress. Biostimulants in agriculture encourage plant nutrition and growth processes irrespective of the nutritional content of the product. They aim to improve one or more of these plant or rhizosphere characteristics, such as nutrient use efficiency, abiotic stress tolerance, quality traits and the availability of nutrients contained in the soil or rhizosphere.

In addition, biostimulation has been shown to effectively reduce the impact of abiotic stress on crops when applied correctly, thereby maximising crop potential and productivity.