Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Thoughts on Organic Tea

I don't really like the term Green guilt. To me, it is just an ostentatious way of saying "conscience." Everybody has a conscience and everyone (at least everyone I know) wants their food, drink and environment to be clean, healthy and natural. To that end, we try to make sustainable choices.

I'm confident that I'm doing a fair job but I'm far from perfect and I'll never be perfect. Being perfect and feeling guilty is not what life is about. Life is about loving, growing, making mistakes, learning, and evolving.

How does this relate to tea? Like anything we humans choose to consume, this issue is extremely complex and very personal. Many teas are as good as organic but not certified, while others (thankfully very rarely) may have fake organic certifications. Sometimes organic teas don't taste half as good as non-organic teas but they cost twice as much. Other times organic teas are worth every penny. The truth is that most tea is primarily a cash crop being produced on high yield mono-crop tea estates. Because of this, I find myself always on the lookout for more sustainable tea growers. These growers usually turn out to be dedicated and caring farmers with low yield farms... and their tea is often very amazing and more expensive. I would love to be able to drink these sorts of teas all the time, but the fact remains that I still drink a lot of non-organic tea. I drink all types of tea from all types of places and I like it that way. I believe that quality, non-organic tea from reputable tea vendors is a healthy and sustainable choice (especially when it's compared to some of the other things we humans chose to eat and drink).

For any readers who came to this post looking for real insights based on objective research (not always my strongest suit) I urge you to read the following articles which helped me on my own path:

"Organic Tea" by the good people behind RateTea.net

"Sustainable, Organic, Fair-Trade: A Conversation with Nigel Melican / Parts 1, 2 and 3" [Chadao blog] by Cinnabar

"Discussions on Organic Cultivation of Tea / Part 1 and 2" [Life in Teacup blog] by Gingko

Further Discussions of Quality" [The Leaf, Issue #7] by Thomas Leons and Wu De


the_skua said...

I find it a contradiction too, to have so much focus on organic in most of my food choices, and then buy and drink lots and lots of non-organic tea. However, I'm know that much of it is produced in a sustainable manner and is done in too small a production to warrant organic certification, a practice which I think is a joke for a number of food stuffs, Chinese tea probably being one of them.

Alex Zorach said...

I like the nuanced approach you take here. Living sustainably is not as simple as seeking out "organic" goods.

And I think in the end, the problem is, like you say, how most plants (not just tea) are grown in monoculture plantations, which is in turn driven by economic factors.

The problem is an economic system which builds-in a continual drive for more stuff and more consumption of resources, and which creates an environment where the price of the shelf reflects not the true cost of a good, but only the cost paid in cash by the person producing it...not the cost to the environment or the costs shouldered by other, less empowered parties.

I think it is good to make conscious decision but I do not think it is constructive to feel guilty about it. And in the end, are we going to solve our environmental problems by paying higher prices for "sustainably produced" goods? I think not.

I think we will ultimately achieve sustainability only when we build a consensus to change the structure of our economic system in fundamental ways, so that our economy can be healthy without continuous growth, and so that prices reflect true cost, not just the amount of cash paid to produce a good.

My thought on how to do this is a change in how we think about taxes. That's the best I've come up with for now...I'd encourage you and everyone to keep thinking and questioning!

tommy_riven said...

I wholeheartedly agree. It seems more worthwhile to buy based on a humanist standpoint rather than broad marketing terms. Of course, most people have little to no ability to trace international products they consume down to the source and must rely on certifications for any degree of certainty in regards to sustainable practices.
I buy as directly as I can and am happy I've been able to buy directly from a couple grower-producers by mail, but as someone landlocked in a fairly small region (dunno if I'll ever be able to afford to even visit Washington, let alone Piglin or Udagamendalem) I've come to base my purchases on taste and on a few buyers who routinely travel abroad and visit with small producing families.
I'm very grateful that, in the case of tea, you can clearly taste when an overabundance of chemicals are used and that good tasting lots are more commonly produced by people who take care and pride in what they do. While excellent tea may be grown on farms utilizing pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers while junk tea may be produced by completely organic methods, I feel confident that when I buy a tea from a particular source and it is consistently good from one year to the next in spite of differences in weather and social/political/economic pressures and fluxes that that producer must really care and be working hard to ensure health and quality.

I hope for better transparency in the future and am glad there are a couple high-profile companies working to this end, even if it is mostly a gimmick for Thierry image and profits.

Gingko said...

I really enjoy all these thoughtful discussions! I can't help thinking about organic cultivation frequently, but often feel more lost. Probably that's what a lot of people feel - besides supporting "right" products (which are often hard to define), we don't know what else we can do.

I absolutely agree with Alex on this - "I think we will ultimately achieve sustainability only when we build a consensus to change the structure of our economic system in fundamental ways"

When I grew up, the entire Chinese society was dreaming of "agricultural modernization". Today it seems clearer and clearer that a big part of such "modernization" includes monoculture, mechanic cultivation and high yields boosted by artificial fertilizer. One or two decades ago, some people would even call this "green revolution". It would be so dreadful to find out a decades-long dream is actually deceptive.

I feel by now, a sustainable world will demand a lot more than individual conscience of consumers and producers. It takes a lot of awareness, education and fundamental changes.

Brett said...

Skua, Alex, Tommy and Gingko - Thank you all so much for the thoughtful
and informative comments! Maybe someday it'll be a give-in that all tea (and food for that matter) is organic... but until that day... we should keep this dialog open and never feel guilty for drinking TEA!