Demand for organic tea has skyrocketed over the past couple of decades, and it shows no sign of stopping. In premium tea-growing regions like Darjeeling in India, plantation after plantation is going organic just to keep up with what the market. And as Jeff Koehler puts it in his new book, Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea, the pressure to go organic is a boon for the region’s soil, which after over a hundred years of intensive development and cultivation is eroding and depleting with every harvest.
But is government-certified organic tea always better for the environment? Nope. As with any produce, organic certification is just a label, and lots of large plantations are cashing in on organic caché while still engaging in unsustainable practices. Unfortunately Big Organic is just as prevalent in the Asian tea business as the California lettuce market. Meanwhile, many small farms that can’t afford the organic certification process work in far more sustainable ways.
Even if a farm is 100% organic, its neighbors might not be, and if the farmer up the hill sprays his tea bushes, chances are those pesticides will make their way to the “unsprayed” organic crops through the air or groundwater. Meanwhile, a farm in total isolation might be using safe amounts of pesticides while providing a more healthy growing environment for its tea bushes.
Organic tea doesn’t necessarily taste any better than conventionally grown tea, either. Up until relatively recently, many organic teas actually tasted worse than their conventional neighbors, as farmers were still negotiating the challenges of growing tea in an entirely different way. These days, though, the organic tea market is improving. But so are many parts of the conventionally grown tea market. If taste is your primary concern, don’t think you need to pay a premium for organic leaves. And if you care about the environmental impact and health of your tea, there’s a lot more to consider beyond an organic label. As always, buy from vendors you trust who in turn buy from farms they trust.
By Max Falkowitz