UK tea industry calls for climate targets to protect largest producer Kenya

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/Nevarpp
Getty/Nevarpp

Related tags: Tea

The calls come as a new report from UK charity Christian Aid warned that climate change is forecast to slash Kenya’s optimal tea growing regions by 26% by 2050.

Climate change is affecting the world’s four largest tea producing countries: Kenya, China, India and Sri Lanka, the report said. Kenya alone produces half the tea drunk in UK and is the world’s biggest exporter, but the country’s medium level tea growing regions are set to decrease by 39%, according to the charity, as the country faces a host of climate related impacts such as rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, droughts and new insect infestations.

These are forecast to destroy 26.2% of the country’s optimal tea growing areas by 2050, the charity warned. Areas with medium quality growing conditions are to be cut by 39% in the next 30 years.

As the world’s largest exporter of black tea, the fate of the Kenyan tea sector has a major effect on tea drinkers around the globe, the report said. In 2017 the UK imported 125,810 tons of tea. 62,222 tons came from Kenya, which is more than the rest of the top 10 biggest importing countries combined.

The charity’s report cited Richard Koskei, a tea farmer from Kericho in Kenya’s western highlands. He said: “For generations we have carefully cultivated our tea farms and we are proud that the tea that we grow here is the best in the world. But climate change poses a real threat to us. We cannot predict seasons anymore, temperatures are rising, rainfall is more erratic, more often accompanied by unusual hailstones and longer droughts which was not the case in the past.”
 
“People in my community will consider running away from tea farming, with jobs lost and consumers of tea might see the price rise. The low earnings have made the younger generations opt for other means of earning income.”
 
“Tea is an example of how we are all connected.  We grow it here in Kenya and it’s enjoyed by people around the world. But if we are to carry on growing it, we need those other, richer countries, to cut their emissions and to think about how we are affected as tea farmers.”

'One of the most critical issues facing the tea sector today'

Dr Kat Kramer, Christian Aid’s climate policy lead, called on the UK government, which is hosting the G7 in June and the COP26 climate summit in November, to “ensure that countries on the front line of this crisis can adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change. With countries starting to announce improved climate plans, there is a unique opportunity to accelerate cuts in emissions and boost the finance needed to help countries adapt to the changing climate.”

Commenting on the Christian Aid report, Dr Sharon Hall, Chief Executive For The Tea & Infusions Association – UKTIA – also called on 'ambitious climate change targets and policies' from the UK government to assist the UK industry limit the impact of climate change. 

“In the UK we import the majority of the black tea we drink from East Africa. We know from various research studies and weather mapping; climate change could put the livelihoods of the people who grow tea for the UK and indeed other countries at risk," ​she told FoodNavigator. "The tea industry across the globe has put into place a variety of programmes and measures to help tackle climate challenges and adapt to change. However, the UK and other governments need to implement ambitious climate change targets and policies, that will help the tea industry work together to limit the impacts of temperature increases and extreme weather events. This needs to be a collaborative effort across the globe.” 

The Ethical Tea Partnership, which aims to improve the lives of tea workers, farmers and the environment in which they live and workreport said the Christian Aid report drew attention 'to one of the most critical issues facing the tea sector today'.

"Tea production is already being disrupted by rising temperatures, droughts, frosts and unpredictable weather patterns. If urgent climate action isn’t taken the tea ecosystem runs the risk of being irreparably damaged,"​ the ETP's executive director Jenny Costelloe told FoodNavigator. 

“Though our programmes over the last decade, we have seen that the climate crisis is not only heavily affecting tea production, but most significantly, the impact is being felt by vulnerable tea farmers whose livelihoods depend on the crop. Unstable climate events in places like Kenya mean that the 650,000 tea farmers and their wider communities, will pay the human cost. The UN FAO estimates that a 30% drop in production in Kenya, would result in 47% of households, among the tea community, falling below the poverty line. Supported by our membership of 50 tea companies, ETP is embarking on a large, multi-stakeholder collaboration to help transition the Kenyan tea sector toward carbon neutrality.

“To reduce carbon emissions along the supply chain we all have a role to play. Businesses need to innovate and invest in more sustainable practices, and Governments need to lead through ambitious carbon targets, by developing supporting policy and by making finance available. Building the resilience of tea farmers is paramount and this can only be achieved through partnerships and commitment from all stakeholders​.”

Tea makers claim to be adressing the climate problem in the countries where they source

Tea makers, meanwhile, said they were taking steps via sustainable sourcing strategies to address the growing environmental problem in Kenya.

A Twinings spokesperson said: “We are aware that climate change is accelerating fast and poses a risk to smallholder tea farmers. As extreme weather and natural disasters continue to affect the sowing and growing of healthy crops, the people who supply the ingredients for our products will become ever more vulnerable. We’re committed to helping to preserve their quality of life and ensure they can rely on agriculture to support their families, through our Sourced with Care programme [Twinings’ ethical sourcing programme, which aims to ensures that it sources responsibly as a company].”

Sebastian Michaelis, Head of Tea International Tea Buying & Blending at Tata, makers of Tetley Tea, said:  “It’s evident that seasonal rains are becoming more unpredictable and the impact this has on crop growth is far reaching; not least in loss of income of those employed at a local level on the farms.

“Water management is a core pillar of Tata Consumer Products sustainability strategy and we have a number of initiatives to deliver on this, at an operational level, throughout our supply chain and within tea communities.
 
“Working in collaboration with Tata Trusts and The Ethical Tea Partnership we have embarked on a study of the impact of climate change in Assam. However we strongly believe that tea communities need much more from the industry than just research, so in tandem, we are involved in a programme to help tea farmers mitigate the impacts of climate change, training them in sustainable practices like soil management, rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation.”

Fiachra Moloney, General Manager Tea Division, Unilever, maker of PG Tips, said: “We’ve been taking action across our tea estates over many years with wide-reaching programmes to boost yields in a water-efficient way to help us adapt to climate change - but we know this can only go so far. 
 
“As Unilever, we call on governments to bring forward ambitious climate targets, policies and plans ahead of COP26 that will help us all work together to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.”

Related topics: Tea and Coffee, Markets, Sustainability

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