Oh No! Climate Change Threatens Global Tea Production

women picking tea in Kenya          Photo: CIAT, Wiki CC

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Many agricultural industries are suffering as rising temperatures take hold, especially in tropical areas closer to the Equator. While the coffee industry has been struggling to keep up as disease and heat threaten crops, tea drinkers may have thought they were safe. It turns out they’re not. According to a new report from Christian Aid, Kenya, which produces half of all black tea consumed by the UK, may lose a quarter of its growing capacity by 2050, and the tea that makes it into drinkers’ cups may taste a lot different than before.  The decline of tea farming has implications for economies worldwide, including Kenya, India, China, and Sri Lanka.

Why This Matters: Tea is the most popular drink other than water globally and the tea industry employs more than 3 million people in Africa alone. Many of these workers live in lower-income regions and have farmed tea for generations on tea plantations with a deep history of colonialism. Ensuring that these communities regain ownership and management of their land could help to mitigate climate change and empower communities. But as they stare down the barrel of extreme weather, drought, and heatwaves, experts say they still lack the resources to prepare or recover. Now, importing countries like the UK are being urged to protect and support tea economies through both funding and emissions reductions.

Palate Cleanser

Optimal tea growing regions could see production decline by 26.2% by 2050, and the outlook is even worse for areas with average tea-growing conditions. These regions could see production drop by up to 39%.

  • In the fall of 2019, tea-growing regions of Kenya saw up to 400% more rainfall than average, leading to plagues of locusts that heavily damaged crops.
  • Average temperatures are also quickly surpassing 23.5 degrees Celsius, the optimal average temperature for black tea plants.

Increased flooding and rainfall may also stifle the plant’s antioxidant production, reducing its anti-inflammatory and immune system boosting properties. Those same aromatic antioxidants give the tea its flavor, meaning future tea may be much less flavorful. Now, to save their most beloved drink, citizens in the UK are urging their government to give tea growers a much-needed assist. 

In 2017, the UK imported 126,000 tons of black tea, including 62,000 from Kenya. Britain’s demand for Kenyan-grown tea goes far back to the early 1900s, when the British army occupied villages, displacing local and Indigenous people to build massive plantations. Those same plantations now employ millions of people who work tirelessly to put tea in UK citizens’ pots, and advocates say it’s time that parliament gave back. Christian Aid, a UK-based organization dedicated to fighting global poverty and producer of the study, has called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make more substantial emissions reduction commitments at the Cop26 Climate summit in Glasgow this fall. The organization also encourages wealthy countries to offer financial assistance to countries facing the immediate impacts of changing climate and weather.

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