Green tea, from the camellia sinensis plant’s leaves, has been enjoyed for thousands of years in Asia and the East.
Green tea’s increased popularity in the West does have impacts on the environment in regions where it’s grown. The environmental impact doesn’t have to keep you from drinking green tea. In fact, there are many benefits.
The most harmful impacts of green tea production include the loss of habitat for animals and plants, reducing forests, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity. You can still enjoy the health and flavor of green tea. But to be a responsible consumer you can know the story behind how it got to your cup or mug.
How green tea affects habitats
The most harmful impact that green tea farming has on the environment is the impact it has on habitats. It changes habitats by removing plants that occur naturally. Green tea farming also introduces chemicals into the ecosystem in addition to chemicals like lead that are already present.
Tea plants are sprayed to get rid of insects and weeds. This changes the habitat around the tea farm. Changes to habitats make it harder for local animals and plants to survive. In areas next to tea plantations, plants and animals may struggle.
Waste management at many green tea plantations is lacking. The processing of tea can result in large amounts of polluted wastewater. And wastewater treatment may be lacking in poorer countries that grow tea.
This wastewater is simply released into the environment. This water has chemicals and other pollutants in it which cause harm to the environment.
Yet tea can also be beneficial for removing harmful substances from the environment. One study found black tea can remove heavy metals from wastewater. Studies such as this one in Kenya identified issues surrounding effluent discharge and ways to remedy them.
One of the largest impacts that green tea plantations have on natural habitats and ecology is the loss of endemic forests across the world. This is done through deforestation.
How growing green tea is related to deforestation
Green tea farming has spread across the globe since originating in China. The area needed for green tea farming is still increasing because more people are requesting this type of tea.
To make land available for tea planting, large areas of local forest are being cut down. Deforestation for tea is making the impacts of climate change worse.
Forests can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Forests also produce the oxygen required for life on Earth. If we lose forests to plant tea, we are causing climate change to speed up.
Forests are biodiversity hot spots. They are homes for half of the world’s species. Deforestation for tea plantations may speed up the extinction of species that live in untouched parts of the forest.
There are lots of different plants in forests that help create fertile soils. Nutrient content in the soil is increased by decomposing leaves. When forests are removed (often through burning), nutrients are lost from the soil. This causes soil erosion.
How green tea affects soil health and erosion
Soils become exposed to wind and rain when trees and plants are removed. There is less organic material in the soils because there is less vegetation and leaf litter. The soils are also not able to hold a lot of water anymore.
Scrapers are used in many green tea-growing countries to keep farmed areas free of weeds. Scraping results in soil erosion. About 30 cm of topsoil is removed per hectare through erosion. This is an average loss of 40 metric tons of valuable topsoil per hectare per year.
Soils with low organic content (like rotting leaves) experience erosion during heavy rains. This makes the soil unsuitable for farming. Erosion also has downstream impacts, as the soil is washed into rivers.
This affects the lives of aquatic plants and animals. It causes sand and silt to build up in rivers, which makes life in the water difficult.
Soils that have lost nutrients and are badly eroded can’t hold a lot of water. This lowers the water table. Upper layers of the soil then have less moisture. Green tea plants then experience long periods of drought. Farmers apply chemical fertilizers to fight against the drought and improve productivity.
They’re not inherently bad, though.
Tea farming calls for approaches such as the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and those used in Japan. Responsible countries and farmers can find responsible solutions, like this farm in Japan.
How green tea affects biodiversity
Inorganic and chemical fertilizers are easy to find at an affordable price. These types of fertilizers are popular in the tea-growing industry. Some industrial fertilizers are a big problem because of the damage done to the soil during farming. Nitrogen in the fertilizer causes a release of other chemicals, which enter rivers and the sea.
The use of chemical insecticides can lead to the loss of local insects. Green tea plantations are a monoculture, meaning only one type of crop is cultivated. These plantations offer the perfect habitat for many agricultural pests and insects. The use of pesticides and insecticides to control these pests may also kill helpful insects and animals.
By killing animals and plants outside of the green tea farm, pesticides and herbicides can change the local biodiversity of the area.
This isn’t the case everywhere though. And it’s not as simple as organics and non-organics. Japanese green tea growing practices fall under strong regulations. And in fact, the best green teas and matcha often are not organic and they’re both safe and eco-friendly.
Broad-spectrum insecticides provide many benefits, like controlling pesky insects and increasing profits by preventing a loss of tea plants. But this is done at the cost of the environment. Regularly using chemical sprays may cause a resistance to pesticides. It can also introduce secondary pests, and cause environmental harm.
Examples of environmentally friendly and unfriendly green tea growing
Green tea is grown in more than 45 countries. Japan, India, and China are the biggest producers, and Sri Lanka and Kenya export the most tea. It is important to know what practices go into the tea that you drink.
You should be able to research the labor conditions, location of plantations, and environmental practices of your favorite brand of green tea.
Human rights are sometimes violated on green tea plantations. Laborers are poorly paid and work in tough conditions. In Sri Lanka, 30% of plantation laborers live below the poverty line. In India, workers earn $1 – $1.50/day and must pick more than 20 kg of tea. Women make up most of the plantation workers and the abuse of women’s rights is common at some green tea plantations.
The environmental impacts of tea production and processing are well recorded. Deforestation to allow for tea plantations has lessened the amount of lion-tailed macaques in India. The amount of Horton Plains Slender Loris in Sri Lanka has also decreased.
Elephants that have entered tea plantations in India have been found dead after eating grass sprayed with pesticides. The death of cows and vultures in the Assam region of India has also been blamed on pesticides from tea plantations.
Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom. In Japan, there are landscapes called satoyama, where people live in complete harmony with nature.
They do this by practicing farming that supports biodiversity. Green tea production is used together with natural grasslands to protect the soil in satoyama areas. This delivers a high-quality tea product while growing culturally important local plants.
So, how should I choose environmentally friendly green tea?
There is an urgent need for sustainable green tea. We need tea that improves soil health, protects rivers and wetlands, and conserves biodiversity. Tea should be enjoyed in a socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable fashion.
Up the chain, the onus is on the grower and the region. But you the consumer make the final choice. You vote with your purchases.
There are many certification bodies and sustainable partnerships that are working with tea plantations across the world. Their main aim is to reduce the impacts of green tea on the environment. Keep a lookout for the following signs when buying your tea to make sure you are choosing environmentally friendly green tea:
- USDA Organic Certification
- Non-GMO Project Verified Products
- Zero Waste Certification
- Brands’ own sustainability reports
- Fairtrade International Certification
- Rainforest Alliance Certification
- Quality Assurance International Organic Certification
- Members of the Ethical Tea Partnership
- Fair for Life Certification
- Soil Association Certification
- FairWild Certification