discussions on tea safety
I posted this on my blog, and would like to share with steepsterites. Discussions and comments are all welcome. I feel there aren’t enough discussions on tea safety. But more discussions would be helpful to shape organic cultivation of tea. What I want to point out is, all these questions are answered by tea farmers and tea professionals who firmly believe tea is generally very safe. I tend to believe it too, but it’s always good to ask more questions from different angles. So the inquiry is still on going!
To tea drinkers, the safety standards of tea leaves is always important. From time to time, concerns are raised about these standards (such as pesticide use, heavy metal residues…). But there are not many systematic studies on these issues. Sometimes, media reports are even influenced by myths and paranoia.
Tea is an agricultural products. However it’s unique in many ways. In most tea producing regions, regulation on pesticide use for tea is much more stricter than the regulations for other agricultural products such as crops, fruits and vegetable. Besides, the processing of many tea products (especially when high temperature is applied) largely helps purify the products. Therefore, most studies on sanitation standards of agricultural products don’t provide good information about tea products.
Here are mainly excerpts of conversations between some Chinese tea professionals/tea farmers and tea consumers (drinkers, vendors…). They are not objective studies. But I believe they can reflect at least some of the truths, as well as breaking some myths. The discussions are about organic cultivation in broad sense, not just restricted to official organic certification. I started these inquiries and collected these conversations mainly to satisfy my own curiosity on this issue, and the conversations happened randomly here and there. Besides, this is a complicated issue and I am a poor writer. To make it easier for me to write and probably easier for people to read, I would just put the contents in bullet points. (texts in parentheses are my additional comments.)
1. Q: Is heavy metal residue a major concern in tea? (this turns out to be a relatively uncomplicated issue…)
A (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer): In the past, some tea products were found to have high heavy metal residue. All of these products are from plantations next to roads with relatively high traffic, and the heavy metal of concern is mainly lead. Tea products from road side plantations are the bottom quality teas and probably you’ve never had any. (I guess I’ve never had any and most viewers here have never had any tea of that low quality. But from the view of the entire “tea industry”, it’s still worth thinking where those low quality teas go. My guess is for extraction of tea ingredients and for making cheap teabags. But it’s just my guess.) High quality tea is always cultivated in well-managed plantations, away from contamination, and most of the times, up in the mountains (this is often true for not just Tie Guan Yin, but tea of other genres too) where few mobiles or none could reach.
2. Q: How much pesticide is used on tea? (Here included are some answers I’ve got. Answers from other people about different tea types are quite consistent with them.)
A: (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer) There is no need to apply pesticide during the winter and before spring harvest, because the bugs are not out yet by the time. In summer, pesticide is used, but only the minimum amount necessary. Currently all pesticides allowed to be used on tea are pyrethroid pesticides, which have the fastest degradation rate among all pesticides. The pesticide is degraded in 3 days, and tea is only allowed to be harvested at least 10 days after pesticide application.
A: (from a Tie Guan Yin farmer) In Fujian province, even when pesticide is applied, most of the time it’s not directly applied on tea bushes, but applied to floral, non-tea bushes planted next to tea bushes. The floral, non-tea bushes can attract a lot of the insects in tea plantation, and therefore pesticides applied to them will reach a most bugs. (This is an interesting idea, and probably partially explained why tea plantations are often seen with floral bushes and trees planted near tea bushes. Later, I did see a few photos demonstrating what he said. For example, this man is applying pesticide on grasses in a tea plantation. This is a corner of a tea field, and tea bushes are several meters behind him.)
3. Q: How can the government enforce these regulations on pesticide? As far as I know, large companies will submit samples and pass government inspection, but most farmers won’t do the same. (In upscale tea market, most tea is from farmers and small factories rather than large companies. Large companies have very high quality tea, but there aren’t many large tea companies in China and none of them dominate the market.)
A: (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer) Nowadays many smaller factories like ours would obtain government inspection certification, because consumers are more and more concerned of safety of agricultural products. As far as I know, most farmers will not go through government inspection, because it’s costly and unnecessary for the family size small production. But all the farmers I know of are extremely careful about using pesticide. They would minimize the amount because overuse doesn’t promote the quality of the tea. Farmers sell tea leaves to factories. Factories that failed to pass inspection will be shut down, and farmers who sell bad tea leaves will have trouble selling their tea in future years.
A very interesting look at tea-growing practices.
From the ecological point of view, whenever you have a monoculture – a single species growing over a large area – you get increased risk of pest and disease outbreak and spread. Thus the need for more pesticides. The thing about pesticides, however, is that they often kill off the beneficial microbes and insects aswell as the pests, so the crop ends up being more vulnerable than before. Not to mention that even with safe pesticides like the Bt variants you run the risk of the pest developping resistance – then you’re hooped.
Practices like companion-planting, diversifying crops and accepting a tolerable level of crop damage are all potential solutions – however they aren’t necessarily practical ones.