It’s estimated that we drink around five billion cups of tea every day. Producing this vast quantity of leaves to quench global thirst for black, green and other varieties is an industry that spans more than 60 tropical and subtropical countries and largely depends on smallholder farmers.

Globally, agriculture plays a large part in driving our planet’s “triple crisis”: climate change, biodiversity destruction and releasing chemical pollution into oceans and waterways. Like many other agricultural crops, tea has an impact, implicated in deforestation of tropical areas (both historic and present), and heavy use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers that harm soils and rivers and add to climate change.

On top of these environmental issues, farmers and tea workers face deeply embedded human rights and gender issues, such as low wages and poor working conditions, exacerbated by globally low prices, according to experts.

Sabita Banerji, founder and CEO of The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea, or THIRST, says the tea sector is in many ways akin to “a 19th-century industry that’s now struggling to survive in the 21st century,” as it faces a host of sustainability challenges, both social and environmental.

“It needs to grow and adapt to the current times,” she adds.

While the tea industry is contending with its environmental and social problems, human activities driving climate change threaten to hammer tea-producing countries and farmers who depend on the crop for their livelihoods.

“The tea sector faces daunting economic challenges stemming from climate impacts, low tea prices, rising production costs, pests and pesticide use, shifts in worker availability and more,” says Christopher Whitebread, the tea sector lead at the Rainforest Alliance.

Experts say that solutions to reducing tea’s environmental footprint would also build resilience against waves of droughts, erratic rainfall and rising temperatures caused by our rapidly heating world.

Many of these follow circular economy principles that aim to reuse waste, boost renewable energy sources and switch to alternative farming methods, ultimately benefiting farmers and biodiversity.

Second favourite beverage

The world is hooked on tea, which comes from the Camelia sinensis plant, and the beverage is renowned as the second most consumed drink globally, only tipped by water.

Globally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in 2021, farmers grew 6.5 million metric tons of tea, with China producing nearly half, followed at some distance by India, Kenya and Sri Lanka. The tea industry employs an estimated 13 million people, with around 9 million smallholder farmers growing roughly 60% of the world’s tea.

Often grown in large-scale monocultures, tea production relies heavily on large amounts of fertilisers and pesticides, which can harm workers, the environment and soils, and further fuel climate change.

Studies, for example, indicate that a lack of personal protective equipment and exposure to pesticides on farms is widespread in some areas of the world, posing health concerns for workers, many of whom are women.

“On the clinics on tea estates, they very often see respiratory problems and skin problems caused by pesticides,” Banerji says. At the other end of the supply chain, researchers also warn of the possibility of a “bitter side” to tea consumption: residue sampling of tea leaves indicates some may be contaminated with pesticides, leading to health concerns for tea drinkers.

Similarly, this overuse of chemicals can have implications for wildlife. Around Uganda’s Kibale National Park, tea plays an important role as a buffer zone, warding off potential wildlife conflict.

But studies show that species, such as endangered primates, can be exposed to a chemical cocktail including pesticides and flame retardants. Researchers are working to parse out the details of where these come from and how harmful they may be to wildlife.

Once tea is plucked it must go through various stages of processing, including withering and drying: energy-intensive processes that often use vast amounts of wood or, in some cases, fossil fuels such as coal. This not only results in carbon dioxide emissions, but also has the potential for “hidden deforestation” for wood to burn, according to experts such as Rachel Cracknell, environment and climate lead at the Ethical Tea Partnership.

“As global tea demand grows by over 2% annually, the pressure on land for cultivation may lead to increased deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, further intensifying the impacts of climate change,” Whitebread adds.

Women work at a tea estate Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka, in this photograph from 2007. Credit: CreVyacheslav Argenberg /, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change and tea

Climate change is both a present and future threat to tea production across the globe, say experts. Studies indicate that climate change will hit tea-producing regions hard.

A report by the Ethical Tea Partnership indicates that by 2050 “the optimal suitability of tea growing regions in Kenya, Sri Lanka and China will be reduced by 26.2%, 14%, and 4.7%, respectively, and by 2070 suitability in Sri Lanka will decline by nearly 30%.” Multiple studies show that various tea-growing regions face the challenge of climate change, including major producers such as Assam state in India.

“There are these global trends that mean each farm, landscape or valley is going to be impacted differently by climate change,” Cracknell says. “We are seeing a lot of incidences of farmers being adversely affected by climate change.”

Climate change brings with it a host of challenges, such as unpredictable rainfall, landslides, more severe droughts, increasing numbers of pests, varying temperatures and shrinking areas for production, say experts. These aren’t future impacts — they’re already being felt today.

“While the impacts vary from one place to another, in many places climate change is already decreasing tea yields and lowering tea quality, with important impacts on the livelihoods of farmers and workers,” Whitebread says.

In Kenya, for example, droughts can decrease tea yields by up to 30%. Chalo Richard Muoki, chief research scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, says climate change has resulted in positives and negatives for tea production in Kenya, though it’s mostly the latter.

“We are experiencing a lot of challenges in terms of production and … sustainability of the industry,” he says. “You find a farm that is almost wiped out and a lot of plants die within the fields because of incidences of drought.”

His own institution is working on multiple fronts to tackle climate change impacts on tea, including identifying resistant crop variants and promoting agroforestry, hoping to reinforce the nation’s smallholder tea farmers.

“For us to be able to manage climate change, it’s not a one-off, it’s not one technology that will work out a miracle,” Muoki says. “It’s about how we combine the synergy between these technologies.”

Credit: Pasi Mämmelä's, CC BY 4.0 Deed, via Flickr.

Resilient tea

Experts say a variety of changes on the production side can help the tea industry reduce its environmental footprint and build climate resilience. That involves moving away from farming practices that degrade and pollute soils with chemical fertilisers, they say.

“By adopting regenerative practices such as agroforestry, integrated pest management and soil restoration, tea farmers are better equipped with tools to enhance biodiversity and protect the land,” says Madhuri Nanda, the Rainforest Alliance’s director for South Asia.

Experts say planting native trees within and around tea farms can provide shade and windbreaks and create a microclimate for tea crops. Integrating timber and fruit trees among tea crops can also generate additional income for farmers. Such agroforestry systems must be carefully designed, however, as too much shade can have adverse effects, such as increasing the number of pests, Nanda says.

In Uganda, a project named Nature-based Solutions for Climate-Resilient Tea (NbS4T), a collaboration between research institutions, government bodies and the tea industry, is trialing a range of measures to tackle climate change and support farmers. This involves using widely available banana waste alongside tea waste to produce organic fertilisers or create biochar as a soil amendment.

“We believe that the combination of organic fertilisers and agroforestry could bring about enhancements in biodiversity, soil, and condition the microenvironment around the plant,” says Tumuhimbise, director of research at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization. He says such practices are currently limited across the country. The hope is that lessons from the project will enable farmers to increase productivity and incomes while creating more sustainable tea, thereby regenerating depleted soils and benefiting biodiversity.

In India, work conducted by the NGO Solidaridad Network has seen success in reducing reliance on chemical fertilisers among smallholders, following similar methods of waste-based biosolutions.

Waste from the tea industry is a useful product and can be used in different sectors, such as the food and pharmaceutical industries, but returning waste to farms is preferred, says Ranjan Circar, global tea lead at Solidaridad Network.

Supporting farmers in India to produce biofertilisers, biopesticides and compost using earthworms has enabled reductions in inorganic chemical fertilisers by around 68%, he adds.

Other researchers note that in countries such as Vietnam, where tea growers use large amounts of fertilisers, farmers increased their income by switching to organic methods.

On the processing side, which is a large energy consumer and source of carbon dioxide emissions, there’s potential for the use of solar energy to cut down on the demand for wood and fossil fuels, say experts such as Cracknell. To date, this potential remains untapped and requires “significant investment,” she adds.

“Currently the tea industry requires a huge amount of wood to meet the demands of heating,” says Harjit Singh, whose research team from Brunel University in the UK developed a solar solution for the tea industry in Kenya. “Even if you’ve got the wood from sustainable forests, burning still causes carbon to be emitted.” Singh adds that renewable energy could be a game-changer in slashing emissions – and air pollution – at this stage of tea production.

Alternatives to the felling of trees may also come from other agricultural waste. In Kenya, efforts are underway to use materials such as rice husks, sawdust, crushed macadamia shells and coffee husks as substitute fuels, according to Cracknell.

“The tea industry is actively exploring alternative sources of biomass knowing that sourcing fuelwood is a sustainability challenge,” she says.

Credit: Melissa Wilt via Pixabay.

Tea and biodiversity

Climate change isn’t the only global crisis; experts say changing farming practices could also benefit biodiversity.

In South America, non-profits and conservationists are using the herbal tea yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) as a means to support biodiversity conservation and restore the highly fragmented Atlantic Forest. Like tea, yerba mate is usually grown in a similar way to any other industrial crop: farmers fell trees and deploy chemicals to boost yields.

But in Paraguay, the non-profit Guyra Paraguay is supporting rural and Indigenous communities to cultivate yerba mate using organic processes, employing a range of native trees, cover crops and natural fertilisers to boost soil health.

“We wanted yerba mate to be a driver of restoration, because it’s an endemic plant of the Atlantic Forest,” says Fabiana Benitez, project manager with Guyra Paraguay, adding that her organisation is now working with some 130 farmers. Research shows that such shade-grown yerba mate systems can benefit biodiversity, particularly birds.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, conservationists have introduced a quality seal, called Cultivo Amigo de las Aves (Bird-Friendly Crop), that follows a similar model and is bestowed on organic yerba mate production that also requires farmers to conserve patches of forest on their land.

Changing agricultural practices also holds potential for supporting biodiversity on conventional tea farms, experts say. A 2022 review of published scientific papers found that tea plantations are lower in biodiversity than other crop plantations such as rice, coffee or bananas, but higher than oil palm, sugarcane and corn.

“In a tea plantation we tend to have very much the clear definition of a monoculture,” says study co-author Jake Bicknell, referring to the lower habitat complexity that results in lower biodiversity.

As well as building resilience against climate change, measures can be taken to “nudge” tea production to support biodiversity, experts say, through steps such as converting monoculture to a “mosaic of landscapes.”

“Traditional tea agroecosystems are still the ideal setting for biodiversity persistence,” says Annesha Chowdhury, senior program manager at the Women’s Earth Alliance. “Tea monocultures managed with multiple habitats and shade trees can support biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

In Cracknell’s view, agroforestry is the “future of smallholder tea production,” but there remains a need to boost farmer incomes by other means, such as payments for tree planting and for maintaining ecosystem services, soil carbon and biodiversity.

Ultimately, experts say, such initiatives are aimed not just at making tea profitable for farmers and to reduce its environmental burden, but also to ensure that it’s a commodity that continues to survive in the face of an ever-changing climate.

“The shift to a circular economy and adopting more regenerative practices in agriculture is a game-changer for farmers,” says the Rainforest Alliance’s Nanda. “It’s not just about reducing harm anymore; it’s about actively restoring the land where we grow our food.”

This article was first published on Mongabay.