We recently attended a tasting session featuring teas from around the world. The teas were outstanding to be sure, however, they represented teas from only a small portion of the world. The countries represented included China, Japan, Tibet, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya and provided a very diverse set of teas. These included white, yellow, green, black, dark, and even purple teas. But our tasting from “around the world” barely even scratched the surface. There are a huge number of countries growing teas. In fact, more than 50 countries grow tea today including many from Asia, a good number from Africa, and some perhaps surprising locations like former Russian states, Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and yes, even the United States, though not always at a high enough to be globally competitive. While the top four growers (China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya) far and away surpass the others, tea production is very much a global business. The average American consumer tea is most likely from China, India, Sri Lanka, or Kenya. However, to illustrate just how global the business is, a somewhat dated report by the U.S. Department of Labor noted in 1996 that Germany, which grows virtually no tea, has consistently been one of the top countries supplying tea to the US market (Department of Labor, n.d.)!
Tea as a Global Commodity
Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, behind water, and demand continues to grow year after year. While tea is consumed in the form of loose leaf, bagged tea, and chai, innovations in ready to drink teas, and powdered tea drinks in Asia continue to drive additional growth. One of the fastest growing segments in Asia, according to Euromonitor (Friend, 2013), is the powered tea segment with products like Xiang Piao Piao, which is a single serve cup of instant powered tea in a variety of sweetened flavors. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Group on Tea, demand for black tea has exceeded supply since 2009. This long term demand is expected to keep the price of tea high for years to come (United Nations, 2012).
Where demand exceeds supply the price generally stays high until supply rises enough to meet that demand so it is reasonable to expect that more countries will see commercial tea planned and those already in the business may increase both the land area under cultivation and work to improve the yield of existing plantations. Additionally, some coffee plantations may choose to change over to tea. This is because coffee rust is increasingly impacting coffee plantations in South America and pushing down coffee production rates. Rust isn’t actually new, it’s what drove Sri Lanka to switch from growing coffee to tea back in the mid to late 1800’s. However, it is now impacting South America, parts of which are seeing the worst outbreaks of coffee rust since it took hold in the 1970’s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expecting significant decline in crop yields for the 2013-14 season on top of already significant declines in 2012-13 (U.S. Departement of State, n.d.)
Given the growing appreciation and demand for ready-to-drink products and specialty teas in the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world we may very well have increased opportunity to experience an even wider variety of tea products from a wide variety of countries in the years to come.
[ See Related Post: Tea vs Coffee Imports – Who are the superpowers? ]
Department of Labor. (n.d.). ILAB – TEA. Retrieved from Bureau of International Labor Affairs: http://www.dol.gov/ilab/media/reports/iclp/sweat4/tea.htm
Friend, J. F. (2013). Global Tea Opportunities in Retail and Foodservice. World Tea East. Atlanta: Euromonitor.
U.S. Departement of State. (n.d.). Retrieved from Coffee Rust Outbreak in Central America, Southern Mexico, and the Caribbean: http://www.state.gov/e/eb/tpp/abt/coffee/index.htm
United Nations. (2012, February 29). UN News Centre. Retrieved from Global tea prices set to stay strong this year, says UN agency: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp/story.asp?NewsID=41411&Cr=Food+Prices&Cr1=#.UoS9i94o601
I also became fascinated in the different tea growing regions, in part when I started researching them in the course of my work on RateTea.
One thing that I find interesting is that the total volume of production on the global market does not correspond well to the availability of single-origin teas in Western countries. For example, Argentina is a major global producer, but I’ve never seen (or tasted) a single-origin tea from Argentina. The same is true for Iran. Turkey, I have been able to buy single-origin tea from, of the Caykur brand, which is available for a very reasonable price at most Middle-eastern import stores. On the other hand, Japan, which is a smaller producer by volume, has hundreds of single-origin teas available on the Western market…and I’ve personally sampled and reviewed well over 40 such teas.
I also enjoyed reading your blurb about coffee rust. I wonder how much of this disease’s prevalence is due to monoculture farming and/or the use of cloned plants. I don’t know about coffee, but I know clonal plants and wide-scale monocultures are common in tea cultivation, although many older traditional methods use permaculture and genetically-unique plants grown from seed.
I have quite a lot of gardening experience, as well as academic knowledge of ecology, and it’s pretty much a no-brainer that monoculture farming is unsustainable, especially if it uses cloned plants. Once any one pest adapts to a particular varietal, that varietal is essentially useless globally–as the pest will spread like wildfire. Growing genetically-unique plants, keeping each farming operation small, and interspersing your crops with other plants can keep the pests so that they are not able to adapt to your crop, and can create a more balanced ecosystem where the pests are naturally kept in check too. When I’ve gardened on a small scale, using genetically-unique plants, I rarely have problems with pests. The only pest problems I have had are on widely-used commercial varietals, like a Bartlett pear tree at my parent’s house that periodically has a problem with fireblight. Again, I think this blight became a problem for this varietal because the varietal is so widely grown in massive monocultures of genetically identical plants.
Thanks for the interest and the thoughtful comment. I can’t claim to have much more gardening experience than the basic home garden which I gave up on due to heavy stinkbug infestations (we are in Northern VA). However, from the limited reading I’ve done it would indeed seem like limited genetic variety is a bad long term strategy.
One of the things I had hoped to cover in this blog was something about small holding tea farmers. I had been hoping to find some evidence that small holders could be more productive though so far that doesn’t actually seem to be the case. The blog was getting long enough so I plan to revisit small holders a bit more in the future. When I do it might be an opportunity to investigate growing practices by small holders and the differences from large commercial plantations.
Thanks again for the comments.