Can You Taste the Climate Change?

Rising minimum temperatures and falling rainfall in Assam valley are affecting the distinctive flavour of tea produced in the region

Watch out! Climate change may now be altering the taste of your morning tea. Yes, you read that right. According to a recent report by the Government of India entitled ‘National Action Plan on Climate Change’, change in the climatic conditions results in rising temperatures and reduced rainfall pattern. And this has not just led to the reduction in tea production, but also altered the distinctive flavour of India’s most popular drink!

Assam Tea Anguish

My Humble Cup of Tea Tastes Different!

My Humble Cup of Tea Tastes Different!

Indian tea, particularly, the Assam tea, produced in the North-Eastern belts of India, is in trouble. Tropical Assam state, with its high humidity and lush greenery, is India’s main tea growing region, producing nearly 55 percent of the country’s tea crop. Overall, India accounts for 31 percent of global tea production. But a gradual rise in the temperature, change in rainfall patterns and a dip in tea production have left plantation owners shattered. Moreover, with tea plantation business hitting North East, India’s position in tea production and export in the world market will disintegrate. The Assam tea is popular world over for its strong and characteristic taste and any adverse alterations may hamper the demand for this tea in the international market.

As per the report, Rainfall in the Assam state, which features high hills and previously abundant rainfall, has dropped by more than a fifth in the last six years, and the minimum temperature has risen by an entire degree to 19.5 Celsius. This is cutting into the ability of the over 300,000 hectares of Assam tea gardens and the well being of the residents, thereby adversely impacting the production of tea. Tea is usually grown in the lowlands of Assam, unlike Darjeelings and Nilgiris which are grown in the highlands. The Assam tea bush grows in a lowland region, in the valley of the Brahmaputra River, an area of clay soil rich with the nutrients of the floodplain. Previously, experts have already suggested that the impact of climate change will begin to show first on the footsteps of the Himalayas, and in lower regions first. Research suggests that as global warming will make higher altitudes warmer, there could be a shift in vegetation and biodiversity from the foothills to upward.

Scientists of Tea Research Association (TRA), Jorhat, Assam found out that while the quality of tea and its flavour depends on a lot of factors including soil nutrients, fertilizers used, etc. experts are hinting that this time around, the decline in quality is a result of the changed weather pattern.

This is an alarming news for the tea planters because the tea industry is one of the most profitable industry in Assam and an impact on it could mean a serious blow the state’s economic situation. The industry employs a large number of workers, both men and women, who are also being hit in the case of any serious economic downfall. There is therefore an urgent need for various stakeholders to step in and try to monitor the situation closely to avoid any manageable impact.

Initiatives on sustainability

With the funding from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), New Delhi, TRA has started a new dedicated project to study the impact, vulnerability and adaptation of tea to climate change. This is a part of network project launched by ICAR all over India to study the overall impact, vulnerability and adaptation of Indian agriculture to climate change. At TRA, scientists aim to study the behaviour of different tea clones to elevated carbon dioxide and temperatures using future climatic scenarios, which will be build up using advanced computing techniques and climate models. Besides, TRA scientists will use simulation models after thorough parameterization and validation to estimate future yields. Apart from this, an in depth study will be carried out to study the soil carbon pool in tea areas and carbon build up will be monitored by addition of organic matter in tea soils. TRA officials believe that an attempt to see carbon sequestration in tea system will also be made. While all these studies will be carried out in this new climate initiative, the impact on tea quality will be monitored at each stage. For carrying out these studies, TRA is said to have created separate climate laboratories in its new dedicated Climate Research Facility, where advanced research on climate will be carried out and more emphasis laid on the sustainability of tea production and the flavour.

While TRA has a lot of plans up its sleeves, the tea crisis in the Northeast terrain calls for immediate intervention by the Tea Board of India, policy community, scientists and of course, tea lovers. Currently, a number of activist groups have petitioned the government to put money towards funding research that would examine climate change in relation to the flavor and shortfall in tea crop. Meanwhile, the Tea Board of India has also announced its plans to research on activities aimed to mitigate effects of climate change on Assam Tea crops.

Time to Act

Amid the initiatives by government, activities and others, tea plants in Assam continue to sob. So does tea lovers who miss out on the original flavour. According to Aditi Nan, a London-based environmentalist, “There is a huge demand for Assam tea abroad, and this is due to its strong, bright flavor. However, the flavour has changed from what it was even 5-6 years back.” She laments that the present Assam tea lacks the creamy and strong flavor and this will sharply hamper the demand for this variety of tea overseas.

Experts believe that Assam tea is just another victim of global warming. The bearing of global warming will eventually add up to change not only the environmental landscape but also the economic landscape of the world in the years to come. Here’s hoping to wish all the best to the Northeast tea industry for now.

(This article was also published in Core Sector Communique Magazine)

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