If you're a true tea connoisseur, it's time to ask yourself an all important question: is organic tea really worth it?
There's no doubt that the market for organic products has exploded in recent years. Now you're more likely than ever to find organic teas available for purchase but often at significantly higher prices. Is buying organic worth the cost? What are the impacts for your health and the environment?
The only way to answer this question is to look at the facts.
To be organic, tea must be grown without synthetic chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides. Unlike conventional tea-growing methods, growing organic focuses on building up the quality and fertility of the soil and the biodiversity around the farm. Organic fertilizers are made from composted plants and animal manure rather than synthetic chemicals, and great care is used to find natural methods for deterring insects.
As much as humans adore the tea leaf, there are dozens of insects that find it just as tasty. For this reason conventional tea farmers need to be constantly spraying their crops with strong pesticides, oftentimes 15 to 20 times a year. In most cases, this spraying is done by low-wage low-skilled laborers (often children) that aren't able to read the warning labels on the containers. Many of these chemicals are actually banned throughout the western world- yet hundreds of children are handling them every day on tea farms.
There are documented cases of large animals like leopards and elephants being killed after exposure to these pesticides. If they are strong enough to take down an elephant, do you really want them anywhere near children?
For most pesticide-saturated foods, you can wash the majority the chemical off before you eat them. Unfortunately with tea, the only time the leaves are “washed” is right in your cup before you drink it.
Synthetic pesticides can pose disturbing health risks, including birth defects, nervous system damage, disruption of sex hormones and even increased risk of cancer. Many times chemicals that have been deemed “safe” by the pesticide industry, like DDT, are later recalled when their health risks become known, though by that time the damage has already been done.
Unfortunately, the risks go deeper than just pesticides. Over 80% of the world's green tea is grown in China, where in many cases the soil quality has been compromised by industrial pollution. These tea plants easily absorb lead from the soil into their leaves, where it is later absorbed by the consumer.
Non-organic tea bags also pose plenty of risk, as they are often made from synthetic polymers that slowly start to break down in warm water, which leaches chemicals of variable health risks right into your daily cup.
Besides the safety concerns for humans, synthetic pesticides have big impacts for the planet as well. Over 98% of sprayed insecticides affect things other than the species they were targeting, meaning that the air, water and soil around the spray site become contaminated.
During heavy rains, many of these chemicals run into rivers and streams where they can contaminate the entire water system. This reduces biodiversity in the ecosystem, destroys habitat and threatens vulnerable species with extinction.
Unlike conventionally produced tea, you know what's in your cup when you drink organic. Certified organic tea is almost entirely free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, meaning that farmers rely on tradition, innovation and ecological processes to grow tea perfectly adapted to their local conditions.
This translates into real world benefits for the tea farmers, the environment and your own body.
Organic teas contain higher levels of antioxidants than non-organic ones and are less likely to have taken up toxic minerals like lead or synthetic pesticides. Some people even believe that the “caffeine jitters” that come from drinking tea are actually caused by the unnatural synthetic chemicals that it contains.
There's no doubt that organic growing methods are better for the planet. An organic field typically has five times as many wild plants and almost twice as many plant and animal species as a non organic one. Because the quality of soil is slowly built up with organic methods, there is less risk of top soil eroding away or running into nearby streams and water sources. This improves the habitat all around the farm, not just for the tea trees.
In many cases, going organic is one of the best business decisions that small tea farmers in developing countries can make for their families. Following organic growing methods helps keep farm laborers safe from synthetic pesticides and it also allows them to maintain their agrarian lifestyle by improving the soil every year through natural methods, rather than becoming dependent on expensive, hard to access synthetic fertilizers. Best of all, high global demand for organic tea means that farmers are able to charge more for their crop, allowing them to better support their families off their income.
Buying organic is almost always better for you and the planet, but it certainly isn't perfect. Here are some of the concerns you should know about.
Organic Regulations Don't Go Far Enough:Though we'd love to believe that all organic farmers put the health of the planet first, for many the certification is simply a business decision to charge higher prices. Oftentimes organic followers only follow the minimum certification requirements for growing organic without actually following the holistic earth care mentality that consumers expect. Likewise, organic doesn't necessarily mean that synthetic pesticides or fertilizers haven't been used; in many cases 'organic' forms of the same products are legally allowed to be used instead.
It Can Cut Off Small Farmers:In the tea industry, the same growing practices have often been followed for centuries. In many cases, this means that small farmers are already using natural, earth-friendly farming methods for their crop, but it's impossible for them to become certified organic because of the time and high cost of certification. This means that buying only organic teas can cut you off from high quality teas grown following techniques that are in many cases even better than the organic certification requirements.
Which Is Better? Making a Smart Choice For You
Knowing whether to buy organic tea depends largely on the source that you buy it from.
- Green and oolong teas should be bought organic whenever possible because non-organic versions are predominately grown in pesticide and lead contaminated fields in China.
- Specialty teas like pu'erh are often okay to buy uncertified because they are so prized by their growers that they wouldn't risk the quality of their final product by adding damaging synthetic chemicals to their plants. In most cases, high quality pu'erh is still grown the same way it has been for centuries.
- Matcha is another tea that can occasionally be bought non-organic, simply because it is almost entirely grown in Japan, a country that has some of the most stringent agricultural standards in the world. However, organic matcha tends to have fuller flavor than nonorganic varieties, so it's usually worth it to pay for certification.
Though you can get away with buying non-organic for high quality specialty teas, choosing organic tea whenever possible is the one of the best strategies you can follow for promoting health for you, your tea farmer, and the entire planet.