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Most people living in the Western world are unlikely to run across a tea plantation in their day-to-day lives. Cornfields, apple orchards, dairy farms, and vineyards? Sure – but tea plantations remain something of a mystery.
Geography has a lot to do with that. Most tea plantations are found in China, India, Africa, and to a lesser extent, in Japan. Being so far removed from these growing operations, people in Europe, North and South America, and Australia don’t really have a clear picture of what tea plantations look like, nor how they might be impacting the environment.
As it turns out, tea farming can be very detrimental to our planet when it’s not held to high standards of sustainability and ethics.
What is Monocropping?
Have you ever flown over a farm in an airplane? If so, you may have noticed that it appeared divided up into several squares or rectangles, each one looking slightly different. This is because farms tend to grow a variety of different crops. This diversity allows for soil regeneration, protects against invasive species, and takes advantage of naturally symbiotic crop combinations.
Monocropping on the other hand, means using an entire farm or plantation to grow only one type of crop. Tea plantations often engage in monocropping to maximize the number of tea plants available for harvest.
In some ways, monocropping can make sense for certain tea growing operations. Well-maintained tea plants can live for up to 100 years. And unlike some other crops, they’re harvested by merely pruning away the top few inches of growth, rather than by removing them completely from the earth. In this regard, it makes sense to leave tea plants exactly where they are.
However, if not carried out correctly, monocropping can lead to huge problems.
Why is Monocropping Dangerous?
There are three big problems associated with monocropping:
Soil Exhaustion – Plants derive nutrients from the soil in which they’re grown. Different types of plants require different nutrients, which is why you’ll see farms rotate through different crops on alternating years. Therefore, keeping only one crop in place year after year leads to soil exhaustion. All of the available nutrients are taken up by the existing plants, and the soil quality will begin to deteriorate.
Pest Control Issues – The uniform growth and lack of biodiversity on tea plantations provides an excellent environment for certain pests or plant diseases to flourish, and these can get out of control very quickly. The most direct way to combat these issues is through the use of pesticides, but in some cases, these chemicals can be dangerous not only to local wildlife, but also to consumers.
Loss of Wildlife Habitat – When soil and pest issues begin to escalate, it is sometimes cheaper and easier for tea plantations to simply push into new land, rather than correct their existing problems. This new land often comes at the expense of deforestation, causing loss of wildlife habitats, and valuable oxygen-producing trees.
What Other Problems Can Green Tea Farming Cause?
The tea leaves are usually dried not by leaving them out in the air, but instead over burning wood. This not only leads to more deforestation, and adds more CO2 to the atmosphere, it is also a very inefficient use of energy. In fact, it is estimated that it takes more kilowatt-hours to produce a kilogram of tea than it does to produce a kilogram of steel!
Of course, packaging can also be wasteful. When you pick up tea at the market, it probably comes in a plastic-wrapped cardboard box, which is in turn full of individually wrapped teabags. While some of those packaging materials may be biodegradable, others are not.
Another point of much concern for people all over the world are the reports of human rights violations by tea plantation employers, with workers regularly expected to put in extremely long days for very little pay. Plantation owners often house their workers on the premises and there are sometimes reports of deplorable health and sanitation conditions. Reports of child labor being used on tea plantations are also troublingly frequent.
What Can Consumers Do to Help?
A little research goes a long way. You can get in touch directly with your favorite tea companies to find out what they are doing to counteract the environmental impact of their farming practices. At the store, you can look for teas that are Certified Organic, or Certified Fair Trade, as each of these classifications are given only to growing operations that meet or exceed certain expectations. You can also call or write tea companies to voice your concerns, and urge them to do more for the environment, and for their workers.
The bottom line is you can help make a change by supporting environmentally friendly and ethical tea companies. All you have to do to get started is investigate where and how your favorite green tea is produced.