HomeEnvironmentClimate Change is Bad News for India's Tea Growers

Climate Change is Bad News for India's Tea Growers

The Problem

The changing conditions in the Assam region of India, one of the largest tea growing regions in the world, have led to weakened taste, decreasing production, and plummeting prices in its famous black tea. Shifting rainfall has affected the balance of chemical compounds found in the tea leaves and lead to a ‘malty, hard’ flavor as opposed to the signature ‘brisk and creamy’ taste.

Assam tea used to make up 51% of India’s total tea product, but now it makes up about half that. Although total production hasn’t dropped much, growers attribute this to expansion in the area of land used. Small tea growers, which make up about 30% of the Assam region, were hit the hardest, as they couldn’t afford the expensive irrigation systems needed to offset the volatile rain.


The Science

In Assam, the usual temperature is below 35 degrees Celsius, but it has now shot up to 40 degrees in shaded areas and 50 degrees in uncovered ones. Tea leaves stop photosynthesis at 35 degrees, food production  at 39 degrees, and die at 48 degrees, so this temperature shift has disastrous consequences for growers. The trees, which historically produce quality leaves till 45 years of age, are now dying out at 35.

This area has historically been classified as subtropical, but as temperatures increase and rain patterns become more erratic, it’s beginning to resemble a fully tropical zone. Looking at data going back more than 100 years, scientists from the Tea Research Association point to the 2°C increase in average temperature and 200 millimeter decrease in annual rainfall as a clear sign that the climate is shifting – due to anthropogenic global warming. India is no stranger to the effects of climate change. Glaciers in the Indian Himalayas have melted, low lying coastal lands and islands have been submerged, and urban pollution is dreadful.

The Impact

Tea is just the tip of the iceberg. Without a solution, the effects of global warming will only worsen. A recent report released by the UN panel on climate change warned that climate change would have dire effects for all of South Asia in the future, including famines, water shortage, economic collapse and increased tensions between hostile nations. It indicated that large parts of India’s population live in areas prone to natural disasters such as floods, cyclones and droughts. Wheat yields will plummet as the climate starts to shift, and natural disasters will destroy entire crops.

Recent hailstorms in the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have already devastated wheat, cotton, corn, and onion plants there and put farmers out of business. Agricultural losses coupled with decline in the fishing and tourism industries will likely collapse huge sectors of India’s economy, and food and water shortages could lead to conflicts with neighboring states over resources.

The Future

Despite having one of the worst emissions standards in the world, India continues to prioritize social and economic development over environmental concerns. India refused to sign on to emission reduction targets at the Copenhagen conference because they would impede industry. Although the Environment Minister put forth a quantifiable estimate of emission cuts goals, these are not going to be legally binding targets or enforced by any governmental body.

Many attempts have been made to shift the country towards renewable sources of energy, but most attempts lack the capital and interest to succeed. Global warming is occurring, and accelerating at an alarming rate. Drink your cup of tea while you can – that’s a luxury you might not be able to enjoy in the future.

[Image Attribute: Serious Eats]
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