black&white #31: International Tea Day and the future of tea

black&white #31: International Tea Day and the future of tea

2 min steep

On Saturday, it was the UN’s International Tea Day and to celebrate, we’ve been spotlighting some of our favourite producers and tea gardens who are leading the way in environmental and ethical tea production. So for this week’s Black&White, I’m doing a quick roundup of some of our past newsletters that highlight why buying from small-scale production with shorter supply chains can really make a difference. For us at Canton, this is what the future of tea looks like.

Back in June last year, I spoke to Paula Bramel about the importance of securing genetic diversity in tea. Cultivating huge fields of just one type of cloned tea, a widespread practice in large-scale tea farms, reduces diversity and risks losing the lot in one catastrophe. As a geneticist and researcher, Paula was calling for governments, international organisations (ie FAO and Crop Trust) and NGOs to support tea-conserving institutions, seed fields and genebanks. Right now, it's the small-scale, traditional tea farms who grow old, genetically diverse varieties of tea that need to be preserved for perpetuity. So, alongside ethical working conditions, supporting local communities and producing tea sustainably, small-scale tea farms and co-operatives have another thing going for them: they hold the key to the future of tea itself.

A few months later, we discussed ‘Big Food’ which, like Big Pharma, refers to some of the most powerful corporations in the world. Think Nestle, Tesco and Unilever (which owns tea brands like PG Tips and Lipton). The size and reach of these transnational corporations means they’re able to exert a disproportionate amount of influence when it comes to policy-making in the global food system. But does the future of our food system lie in the hands of multinationals whose products are usually industrially processed? Or does it lie in the hands of small-scale farmers? We know who we’re rooting for.

Tea Picker at Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative

Scything wild rooibos at Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative.

And lastly, we delved deeper into what a corporate cup of tea really costs and the precarious nature of vertically integrated business. This is when the supply chain of a particular product, like industrially-produced tea, is integrated and owned by one company with control of the entire production process, from farm to fork, from tea leaf to tea cup. While vertical integration isn’t necessarily bad, what are the implications for the growers? They are both the most important and least powerful part of the supply chain and often suffer poor working conditions and low pay as corporations determinedly bring a low-cost product to market. Cheap tea can come at a terrible price. 

So we’ll say it again. Buy the best quality you can afford from suppliers who source from small gardens and cooperatives, and who know exactly where their tea comes from.

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