Brits will celebrate National Tea Day on 21 April, but few realize that the tea plant is facing a range of challenges, from climate change to poor conservation
(BONN, GERMANY – 17 April 2019) – Britain is a nation of tea drinkers and the daily average of 165 million cups – nearly 25 million litres – will no doubt be consumed in the country on National Tea Day, on 21 April.
But while new, more exotic teas have become increasingly popular in the UK in recent years – alongside the ever-popular “builder’s tea” – a new study highlights the risks facing tea production around the world. It calls for a global effort to improve conservation of tea plants in genebanks.
In Kenya, for example, where around 70% of the tea consumed in the UK is produced, increasing rainfall and cloud cover in Kericho Country – the country’s largest tea-producing area – has resulted in reduced soil temperatures. This, in turn, has affected the productivity of some tea plants. Rainfall in the county is also becoming more erratic and there are longer dry spells, affecting agriculture there across the board. In order to adapt, tea farmers will need access to new, more resilient tea plants that can withstand these and other challenges.
“With so much tea around, people might wonder why tea plants need to be conserved,” said Paula Bramel of the Crop Trust, which led the study. “What they often don’t realise is that most of the tea consumed around the world comes from just a few varieties. These are increasingly vulnerable as more extreme and erratic weather brings increased risks of floods, drought, and new pests and diseases to tea plantations and farmers around the world. The most fundamental way to reduce the risk is to conserve the full range of tea plants – both wild and farmed – and make sure they’re available for research.”
Those diverse teas could enable scientists to breed new varieties, making production more resilient as well as meeting the interest of consumers in new speciality teas. They could also be key to breeding teas that require fewer pesticides, benefiting plantation workers and satisfying consumer demand for safer, more sustainable production.
Assessing tea conservation
Collections of different types of teas are conserved as living plants grown in large, specially maintained fields. These are managed by public and private organizations, with the largest in China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Kenya. These so-called field genebanks typically distribute cuttings from the tea plants in their collections to researchers and farmers. The year-long study assessed the state of conservation in these and other key tea genebanks around the world.
It found that tea conservation lacks the vital collaboration and infrastructure enjoyed by other major crops like rice, wheat or corn, for example. These have globally-agreed standards for long-term conservation, and a system for backing up duplicate samples as a form of insurance. Tea also lacks an open system for genebanks to freely exchange their samples for research.
“A lack of collaboration in conservation multiplies the risks,” continued Bramel. “One genebank might not be aware that it conserves the only remaining sample of a particular variety. If its tea collection is wiped out by a storm, drought, or pest, that tea might be lost forever. It also prevents scientists from using the full range of different teas to breed more resilient plants.”
It’s not just British tea drinkers who could be affected. Tea is the world’s most popular drink after water, with around 2 billion consumers worldwide and the global tea trade is worth an estimated USD$5 billion a year. “It’s a precarious situation for a crop upon which so many people depend for employment, trade and refreshment,” said Bramel.
The study calls for an industry-wide effort to secure conservation of the many different kinds of tea in genebanks, and for these samples to be exchanged amongst scientists. Consumer goods company Unilever, which supported the study, was optimistic about the opportunity for the tea community to come together.
“As one of the world’s biggest tea businesses, we will continue to play our part to protect the tea crop,” said Mick van Ettinger, Executive Vice President Tea, Unilever. “An encouraging finding of the study is that we are still at a point at which we can secure the long-term conservation of the tea crop. Greater collaboration between the tea industry, government, farmers’ organisations and others is vital, so let’s collectively prioritise this important work.”
The Global Strategy for the Conservation and Use of Tea Genetic Resources was led by The Crop Trust, with the collaboration of the national genebank at the Tea Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (TRICAAS), several other key national collection holders, and consumer goods company Unilever. Click to read the Strategy summary.
Frequently Asked Questions with Paula Bramel
Crop Trust Advisor, and lead author of the Global Strategy for the Conservation and Use of Tea Genetic Resources.
- What is tea genetic diversity and why is it important?
“Tea genetic diversity means the differences in the DNA of all the different tea plants around the world, wild and farmed. These variations can mean one tea type makes a great cuppa while another repels a particular pest. Conserving tea samples and making them available for research gives scientists the best possible options for breeding new teas. it’s a great way to produce teas that combine the best of both worlds – for example, making a great brew, and repelling pests too.”
- Is tea going to die out?
“Some kinds of tea are being lost, that’s not in any doubt. It can happen as old plantations are abandoned or as tea farmers decide to switch to different types of tea – or different crops altogether. If those teas are not conserved in some way, they could be lost forever. And that means the tea community as a whole loses options for adapting to the challenges ahead. Genebanks that conserve and share their tea samples are a great insurance policy.”
- What does a tea genebank look like?
“They can be large or small, but one thing they all have in common is that they have some land dedicated to growing lots of different kinds of tea. These are living collections, a kind of life support system for tea. Some genebanks will also conserve tiny plant samples indoors, in jars until they’re ready for planting. One of the challenges with tea conservation is that a storm could sweep through that field collection and wipe it out completely. Storms can also damage infrastructure – including the buildings that contain those tiny plants in jars. Pests and disease can also do a lot of damage. If that tea collection isn’t backed up somewhere, some of those teas could be lost forever, erased. You backup your hard disk, just in case, don’t you? We need to do the same for tea.”
- When you talk about making tea samples in genebanks available for crossbreeding, is that in order to create GMOs?
“No. Conventional crossbreeding has been practiced in a systematic, scientific way for decades and farmers have been crossbreeding plants for – arguably – thousands of years. Nature has been doing it even longer. We’re advocating for tea conservation to support crop breeding in this conventional sense – crossbreeding one tea type with another in the hope that the offspring will be more productive, resilient, efficient, tasty – perhaps all of those things. That would be a tea worth fighting for!”
- Why can’t tea just be conserved in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, like other crops?
“Tea is actually one of several important crops that can’t easily be stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Tea is best conserved in living plant collections – known as field collections – rather than by freezing seed (the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is essentially a very large, very secure freezer for seeds). That’s why it’s so important to make sure that we improve tea conservation in the tea genebanks of the world and ensure their tea collections are properly backed up somewhere else. They’re all we’ve got.”
- Is the situation for tea similar to that for coffee?
“It’s similar in some ways, but different in others. Coffee and tea are both relatively complicated crops to conserve, in the sense that you need to grow the plants in field collections – and keep them alive! But the coffee industry is far ahead of the tea industry when it comes to conservation. There is a broad recognition by some of the large coffee companies that conserving the widest possible range of coffee plants is a great insurance policy for their businesses. We produced a coffee conservation strategy in 2018 and were able to put a cost on safeguarding coffee in genebanks forever. It worked out at just USD$25 million – that’s a single amount to cover the costs of conservation forever. It’s small change to some players in the coffee industry, so we’re hoping they will step up and fund conservation of the crop their business models depend on. We were able to come up with that estimate because the system for coffee conservation is much more open than that for tea – despite the coffee market also being very competitive. It reflects the coffee sector having more of a sense of ‘being in it together’. We need the tea industry to develop this idea of a shared cause.”
The Crop Trust is an international organisation working to support crop conservation in genebanks, forever. Through investment income generated by its endowment fund, it provides financial support to international, regional and national genebanks, and the world’s backup facility, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Crop Trust’s global patron is His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales. www.croptrust.org