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Tea may reign supreme as the healthy alternative to coffee, but this divine nectar does have a flaw—the potentially harmful chemicals used in its production. The answer? Tea that is cultivated organically.
Which beverage would you guess is more popular worldwide—coffee or tea? Surprisingly, the bean falls behind the leaf, which is second only to water as the globe’s favorite drink. (Even Energy Times readers love tea. In our 2005 survey, herbal tea ranked number one by a whopping 15.5% among all purchases made in health food stores over the previous six-month period.)
There is a downside, however, to tea’s growing fame. The staggering demand for this fragrant brew has led to a mass-production technique known as conventional tea farming, which employs environmentally harsh practices leading to potential health risks for farm workers, animals and insects near the farms and, ultimately, for tea drinkers. So demand is also increasing for a cleaner, safer, more earth-friendly alternative: organic tea.
“The growth in organic tea is not a fad, it’s definitely a growing market trend,” explains Jessica Robinson, who conducts research and development for a leading organic tea company. Tea has been swept up in the organic lifestyles wave. Industry trend results show that overall tea sales grew 10% from 2003 to 2004. Specialty teas enjoyed significant growth in this span; sales of the green variety spiked 19% and organic tea sales were up a remarkable 41%. With such incredible demand, where is all this tea—both conventional and organic—coming from?
All the Tea in China
“Tea is grown in estates or gardens, primarily in Asia,” says Robinson. “The most well-known tea-growing countries are China, India, Sri Lanka, Japan and Taiwan. In most countries, the gardens are owned by large corporations. Workers typically live on the property, in state-provided housing. China is an exception in that most of the tea is grown on small, family-owned plots.”
In conventional tea production, industrial techniques are employed, with machines carrying out much of the process. Environmental awareness, like Boston tea party boxes, is wantonly tossed overboard in the quest to produce maximum crop yields at minimal expense. At 3 million tons per year, the massive tea crop means extensive use of environmentally unsound chemicals, and widespread negative impact on natural lands and habitats.
Conventional tea production is a monoculture, which means that tea—Camellia sinensis, to be exact—is the only crop planted. This enables economical production, as the same tilling and cultivation techniques are used over large areas of land. But this one-dimensional crop, combined with the use of chemical fertilizers, can leave the soil depleted of nutrients and prone to erosion over time.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of conventional tea production is the use of pesticides. For a tea plant to grow and thrive, it must endure attacks from hundreds of insects and fungus diseases. It is estimated that 70 million pounds of tea are lost each year to these environmental threats.
Conventional tea producers frequently use pesticides, sometimes even exceeding recommended levels in the desperate quest to maximize crop returns. Workers are rarely given protective gear and clothing, and face pesticide exposure that could put their health at risk. Finally, indigenous animals and insects that do not threaten the harvest often suffer collateral damage from the overwhelming pesticide levels. According to the Times of India, between 1999 and 2001, five elephants and ten leopards were killed by pesticide leakage in West Bengal’s tea gardens.
With conventional tea production’s disregard for workers and environmental destruction, it’s easy to see why organic production is a growing trend.
Organic Feels Goooood
But what exactly is organic tea? To be labeled organic, tea must be produced in an environmentally friendly manner. At the core of this philosophy is sustainable farming, which aims to create an environmentally harmonious ecosystem comprised of healthy plants and clean, natural soil. Organic estates use only natural methods to achieve the same ends of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides.
Organic tea gardens opt for natural fertilizers, such as sawdust, organic sesame meal and manure. Ideally, they have on-site compost and mulch yards, which maximize yield in the short term while replenishing nutrients to the soil for long-term sustainability. Instead of chemical pesticides, farmers introduce natural pest enemies, such as pathogens, predatory insects (spiders, ladybugs, etc.) and parasites, to control pests. Organic gardens also intermingle tea plants among other plants and trees, a practice that helps to naturally maintain adequate soil nutrients. To be certified organic, each step of the tea production process must be verified by an independent third-party certifier; if that certifier is registered with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the tea can then carry the green-and-white USDA Organic logo.
All this effort does make a difference. For example, “the Makaibari Estate in the Darjeeling region of India is home to 220 species of birds, 2000 species of butterflies, and hundreds of species of flowers including a nearly extinct white orchid,” Robinson says.
Growing and harvesting in conventional versus organic tea gardens is dramatically different. However, “production of the tea after harvest is basically the same for both,” explains Robinson. White, green, oolong and black tea are all made from the same plant; it’s the processing that determines the type of tea produced.
White tea is the least processed; a quick withering process removes moisture from the leaves, which are then completely dried in the subsequent roasting process. For green tea, leaves are spread in trays and left until almost completely dried, and then quickly heated to finish the process. Oolong tea is created with sun-dried leaves, broken by shaking, that are then fermented, yielding a deeper, richer flavor as fermentation time increases. Black teas, the most popular, are produced by completely fermenting leaves following the drying process.
All of these varieties contain polyphenols, which are antioxidant chemicals believed to be responsible for tea’s myriad health benefits. Green and white teas, due to minimal processing, possess the most antioxidants of all. Antioxidants combat the free radical damage that has been associated with numerous maladies. Research suggests that tea’s antioxidant power may help to reduce the risk of arthritis, stroke, osteoporosis and cancer. In addition, research suggests that tea may drop the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol and fighting inflammation. Green tea has been shown to be extremely helpful to dieters and even promotes oral health.
Tea’s healthful reputation increases with every new study. In a report published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Japanese subjects aged 70 and older who sipped at least two cups of green tea a day had the sharpest minds. Other research has shown possible links between tea-taking and reduced risks of diabetes and autoimmune disorders (in which an uncontrolled immune response attacks the body’s own tissues).
Go organic and feel the pleasure. It’s good for you, good for the environment and good for farm workers around the world. An organic cup of tea reflects the simple charm that has made this blissful beverage world-famous. Only hot water and leaves? Hardly. Each cup contains the history of thousands of years, the health benefits of numerous antioxidants and the customs of many cultures. Untainted by man-made chemicals, organic tea expresses the delicious, healthy union of earth, sun, air and water, united in freshly plucked leaves ready to fulfill their destiny.