Organic Consumers Association

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The Dark Side of the Global Tea Industry

Aside from pure water, drinking high quality tea can be a healthy beverage option. Many teas contain polyphenol antioxidants recognized for their disease prevention and antiaging properties. For example, research1,2 has shown long-term tea intake can improve your blood pressure.

One systematic review of 25 randomized controlled trials found those who regularly drank either green or black tea for 12 weeks had an average of 2.6 mm Hg lower systolic blood pressure and 2.2 mm Hg lower diastolic pressure compared to those who did not drink tea.

Green tea provided the best results, followed by black tea. According to the authors, this reduction "would be expected to reduce stroke risk by 8 percent, coronary artery disease mortality by 5 percent and all-cause mortality by 4 percent at a population level…" Just how much tea would you need to drink to get these kinds of benefits?

Research suggests an ideal amount is around three to four cups of tea per day.3 For example, one 2007 study4 found "clear evidence" showing that three or more cups of tea — in this case black tea — reduced the risk of heart disease.

But for all their health boons, tea has its dark sides. Erik Hane's 2018 DW documentary "Bitter Cup: The Dark Side of the Tea Trade," investigates some of the lesser-known facets of India's tea industry, which is typically staffed by underpaid workers forced to live under dismal conditions.

Few are also aware of the health ramifications these workers face, as they're frequently exposed to toxic pesticides — or that most teas, including the most prized, are contaminated with these chemicals. Quality certification also has its problems, and is no guarantee that workers are paid and treated fairly.

Darjeeling — The Champagne of Tea

"What is the true cost of tea?" the film asks, "And are Indian workers the ones paying the price?" In Germany, tea appreciation is on the rise. Tea taster Henning Schmidt holds weekly lectures, teaching people about the finer aspects of tea drinking. Whereas bagged tea used to be the norm, more and more people now want a more refined experience with their tea, and are moving toward loose teas.

"Aficionados brew tea according to a very strict ritual," Hane says — techniques that help bring out the flavor and aroma of the tea. Along with this new appreciation for tea comes a willingness to pay more for high-quality tea leaves. According to Schmidt, high-quality tea costs between 20 euros and 30 euros ($23 to $35) per 100 grams. The most expensive tea available can go as high as 60 euros ($70) for 100 grams.

One of the most prized teas in the world — often referred to as "the Champagne of tea" — grows in Darjeeling in Northern India. The tea is grown high in the Himalayan mountains, and many believe it's this unique growing location that makes Darjeeling tea so special. Because of the intense sun exposure, the leaves grow slower than in lower regions, and this slower growth rate is thought to be part of the formula that gives the tea its distinctive flavor.

It's steep price tag is also due to the fact that everything has to be done by hand. The steep hillsides cannot accommodate machinery, and the physical labor that goes into every facet of the tea's production adds to the final price. That, at least, is the justification offered by vendors in the West. In reality, locals in Darjeeling do not appear to be profiting from the region's tea production. In Darjeeling City, poverty and unemployment rates are high, and migrant workers live in the slums, located in the city center.

Darjeeling Tea Pickers Fight for Living Wage

Hane interviews Suraj Subba, the leader of the local tea trade union. According to Subba, Darjeeling tea pickers get paid just 1.70 euros ($1.98) per day. The union is pushing for a living wage, which would be at least twice as much. From this meagre income, workers must pay for housing, food, clothing, school fees and educational material for their children, health care and everything else a person might need for daily living.

Picking tea is backbreaking work. Seven o'clock each morning, the workers start picking tea leaves by hand, baskets suspended from their forehead across their backs to keep both hands free. A local tea picker comments, "Picking tea might not be a very complicated job, but it's extremely tiring."

To earn their daily wage, the workers must also reach the daily quota, which can range from 8 to 20 kilos (17.6 to 44 pounds) depending on the time of the season. Here in the mountains, there are no other jobs, so there's no competition for workers. Moreover, in order to have the privilege of paying to live on the plantation, you have to work there.

The highest quality teas are whole leaf, which have the best flavor and strongest aroma, followed by broken leaf. Bagged teas typically contain the lowest grade tea. Fraud exists in the tea trade as in most others, and large quantities of tea are fraudulently sold as Darjeeling each year. This only adds to the problems facing those trying to make a living in Darjeeling, as it affects both the price and reputation of their tea.

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