Climate Change Brings a Bitter Taste to Tea Growers in Assam

Rising temperatures and changing clomatic conditions have reduced crop yields and changed the taste of teas picked in the northern Indian state of Assam. Planters are worried their markets could collapse as a result.

Climate change is making many tea planters in Assam worried about yields in years to come.Kolkata, India. January 2011.  Mridul Hazarika, director of the Tea Research Association in Kolkata, India, is a worried man. He has been tracking the average temperatures in the northern Indian state of Assam, where more than half of India’s tea crop comes from.

Hazarika says the temperatures in the region have risen 2deg Celsius over the last 80 years – and this is leading not only to a drop in overall leaf production, but also to changes in the taste of the tea which could affect sales.  

Assam produced 564,000 tons of tea in 2007, but this has gone down to 487,000 tons in 2009; almost 15% less. The 2010 crop is also down, with only around 460,000 tons being picked according to Dhiraj Kakaty of the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association.

"Days with sunshine were far fewer during the (monsoon) rains this year," he says. “This leads to a shortfall in production and damp weather unfavourable for tea." The accompanying wet days also aggravate bug attacks on the tea crop, further reducing yields. Kakaty identified one pest called the tea mosquito bug; this thrives in damp weather and attacks fresh shoots of the tea bush.

Reluctance to use pesticides because of environmental concerns has added to planters' woes. But there is another effect of the rising temperatures and added moisture – the taste.

Damp, less sunny weather increases the chances of pests on the crowded tea plantations.Assam is the source of some of the finest strong black, "breakfast" teas famous for their strength and body, but the climate changes are making them weak.

Expert tasters complain that previous cuppas used to exhibit bright, strong flavours, but this is no longer the case. Rajib Barooah, one tea planter in Jorhat, Assam's main tea growing district, says that the industry is worried. "We are indeed concerned," he says. "Assam tea's strong flavour is its hallmark."

Assam produces nearly 55% of total tea output in India (which supplies over 30% of the world’s tea), and employs a large proportion of the 3 million people across India who work in the industry. Most of these live just a few rungs above the poverty line and would struggle to survive if the jobs disappeared.

Many tea workers barely survive above the poverty line.


Plantation owners fear output will drop further as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, and pray that the changed taste will not further dampen sales.

Scientists at the Tea Research Association are busy analyzing temperature statistics to determine links between temperature rise, fluctuations in rainfall and the effect on tea yields. But the outlook is not good.

The U.N. predicts temperatures rising up to 6.4deg Celsius by 2100. NASA reported earlier this month that the January-November 2010 period was the warmest globally in 131 years, and U.N. experts say countries' current voluntary emissions pledges will not be enough to keep temperatures stable.

It's not just the amount of tea leaves that is being affected - the taste is changing too.Tea growers are not the only growers suffering because of the weather. Warmer temperatures have cut sharply into wheat farmers' yield in northern India — their crops are maturing too quickly, resulting in fewer returns.

India has proposed a system of support between rich and poor countries designed to assist by sharing technologies that help farmers cope with climate change. These projects include shifting crops threatened by drought, building water supply and irrigation systems, and improving agricultural processes.

Although industrialised countries have pledged US$30 billion in emergency funds through 2012 to help poor countries prepare for climate change, this may not help the tea growers of Assam. "We used to get a bright, strong cup. Now it's not so," says L.P. Chaliha, one professional tea taster.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

Photos by Jeremy Torr