black&white #43: COP27, climate change and tea

black&white #43: COP27, climate change and tea

4 min steep

This week marked the start of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and the 29th United Nations Climate Change Conference since they began in 1995. For the first time ever, there will be a Food Systems Pavilion, bringing together actors, campaigners and leaders across the entire food chain in discussions of how best to drive change in a highly inequitable and unsustainable food system. 

People arriving at COP27 event.

Delegates at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Photograph by UN Climate Change.

Given that food is responsible for around a third of global emissions worldwide, it’s staggering that it’s taken this long for a Food Systems Pavilion to appear. But nonetheless, it presents a real opportunity to reduce emissions, improve food security, restore nature and rebalance the scales of social justice – if, of course, world leaders in rich countries are committed to doing rather than saying.

Tea, like many global food and beverage commodities such as coffee, cocoa and sugar, employs millions of people around the world – and is currently the main source of income for 9 million smallholders, primarily from Asia and Africa. And yet, while ethical and sustainable tea production can help meet many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, such as the reduction of extreme poverty, the fight against hunger, the empowerment of women and the sustainable use of ecosystems, many tea producers are locked into supply chains which treat and pay workers poorly, and encourage the use of chemicals.

Women picking tea in a field in India.

Tea pickers at a large tea estate in Assam, India. Photograph by the BBC.

When it comes to corporate tea estates, the story predictably gets worse. In 2015, a BBC investigation exposed the appalling and inhumane living and working conditions on tea estates in Assam. Many of these tea estates supplied some of Britain’s biggest tea brands. Similarly, cultivating huge tea fields of just one type of cloned tea plant – a widespread practice in large-scale tea farms – reduces diversity, wildlife and healthy insects – and leaves the plantation vulnerable to pests and crop disease, as I found out when talking to geneticist Paula Bramel last year

On the other hand, a large and well-run tea estate will build nature-friendly growing principles into their practices, pay their workers properly and offer a whole range of benefits, from free schooling and housing to career development tracks. We favour the small family-run farm or cooperative that follows organic and biodynamic techniques but may not have jumped through the expensive certification hoops – see why we’re not organic.   

Members of a tea co-operative gathered around a sign

Members of the Potong Tea Workers Committee at the Darjeeling garden. Photograph by Equal Exchange Resource Centre.

But while it’s clear that environmental and ethical tea growing offers many benefits to people around the world, tea-growing regions are also going to be badly hit if global warming continues. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns are already affecting yields and forcing farmers to adapt quickly to a changing climate. And a report last year showed that the area of optimal tea-growing conditions in Kenya will be reduced by more than a quarter by 2050, with around 39% of areas with medium-quality growing conditions facing destruction. Tea growing regions in India, China and Sri Lanka were also likely to be affected. Together with Kenya, these four countries constitute the four biggest tea producers in the world – and will have to spend billions of pounds securing the livelihoods of their people and mitigating other disastrous effects of climate change. 

With many having far lower CO2 emissions per capita than countries in the Global North – even the average Chinese person emits quite a bit less than the average American – is it really fair that they foot the bill? 

These are the questions dominating this year’s COP27. Some have already denounced the summit as a pitiful attempt at greenwashing and a sack of empty promises – especially in the face of Egypt’s human rights’ record. Others continue to endorse it as the only viable way forward in the face of multiple, interlinking crises. 

Tea is just a tiny piece of the puzzle. But over and over again, we’re inspired and humbled by farmers who – often against the odds – continue to produce exceptional tea, pay their workers properly and restore and protect the natural world in the process. Like the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative who harvest Canton Wild Rooibos from the Cederberg mountains of South Africa and who are fighting for the rights of indigenous people in the tea industry. Or the Potong Tea Garden in Darjeeling, who produce Canton Darjeeling, practise agroecological farming and are majority-owned by its workers. The moringa leaves in Canton Botanical Calm are farmed by a women’s cooperative in Burkina Faso, providing valuable employment opportunities in a less economically developed part of the world. And the Van Chan Co-operative in Vietnam, responsible for the wild green and black teas in Canton Moroccan Mint and Canton Wild Chai respectively, is a female-run co-operative where all workers benefit from fair wages and receive sick leave, health insurance and paid holiday. 

A group of Farmers in a Field at Potong Tea Garden

Tea farmers at the Potong Tea Garden in Darjeeling. Photograph by Equal Exchange Resource Centre.

So, in short, protect the small-holders and farmers who are both most at risk of climate change and offer a solution to a deeply inequitable and unsustainable food system. Big business needs to help with the solution but right now isn’t the answer.

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