Last updated: January 2014
Make it Better Campaign
Friends of the Earth’s Make It Better campaign is calling for a strong EU law to make sure companies come clean about the true costs of production. This extract from their Tea Briefing looks at how the tea industry is damaging biodiversity and overusing pesticides.
Loss of wildlife and habitats
In order to meet the world’s demand for tea, huge expanses of farmland and forest are converted to growing only tea. For example, in 2011 large swathes of East African rainforest were sold to create a tea estate, despite opposition from the Ethiopian President and national environmental authorities.
Sri Lanka Tea Plantation
These monoculture plantations drastically decrease biodiversity through loss of plants and animals. Habitat loss associated with tea farming has decreased numbers of two officially endangered species – the Lion Tailed Macaque in India and the Horton Plains Slender Loris in Sri Lanka.
And monocultures provide the perfect environment for pests, resulting in an increased use of toxic pesticides. Pesticides have a lasting effect upon soil quality, as well as devastating impacts on local wildlife and the workers applying the pesticides.
In 2011 four elephants died in India’s Kaziranga National Park after eating pesticide-coated grass from a tea plantation, which prompted forestry officials to call for a pesticide ban around the park. ILO studies have revealed that two categories of illnesses – respiratory and water-borne diseases – account for 60 to 70 percent of the diseases affecting tea plantation workers.
In 2012, Greenpeace bought 18 tea products at random from nine tea companies in China which exported to Europe and, after sending the samples to be tested, discovered that 12 of the 18 samples contained at least one pesticide banned for use on tea.
Intensive farming of tea also reduces the productivity of the soil, as the land is rarely given a chance to rest and replenish, leading to nutrient-sparse soils that are easily degraded and washed or blown away. As well as reducing the productivity of the tea sector and driving it to clear forests for new plantations, soil washed from fields into surrounding habitats like wetlands and rivers can also cloud the water and drive away wildlife.
Switching to organic tea farming would protect habitats and wildlife, safeguard the productivity of the land, and reduce the need for pesticides.
Some brands are already selling tea certified rainforest-free, working with suppliers to ensure they use environmentally-friendly production methods. Major tea buyers could use their influence to support tea estates and small-scale farmers to help them improve their processes.
A Make It Better law would see them taking responsibility for what’s happening at the far end of their supply chains and help end problems like rainforest destruction and elephant deaths.
The carbon footprint of tea
The process by which tea is dried and processed requires a lot of energy. UNEP calculates that it takes 8 kW h of energy to process one kilogram of finished tea, compared with 6.3 kW h for the same amount of processed steel. This high energy use means that in India for example, the use of firewood in the drying process – the most energy-intensive part – has led to severe deforestation. In parts of East Africa, where power is expensive and unreliable, many tea factories have had to install polluting standby diesel generators to meet their needs.
The tea industry could support tea producers to switch to renewable energy. Tea estates’ hilly locations – often in areas with high annual rainfall and all-season river flows – can make them suitable sites for hydropower projects, if achieved without negative impact on local ecosystems and water supplies.
When you’re making a cup of tea, tea without milk or ‘black’ tea’s footprint is 21g CO2 equivalent. Add cow’s milk and you more than double the footprint to 53g of CO2e. That’s because dairy milk itself is a high-carbon product with nearly half of its carbon footprint coming from the methane emissions of cows.
So if you drink four mugs of tea with milk a day, that’s the same as a 60 mile drive in an average car.
We don’t have any figures for tea with non-dairy milk such as soya but it will of course be higher than black tea because of the extra carbon footprint from agriculture.
So, for a lower impact cup of tea, drink it black.
If you boil twice as much water as you need, which is what most people do, you’ll add 20g CO2e to your drink, so only boil the water that you need.