What’s happening to my tea?


By Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

In December 2015 John, Niladri and I attended the AGU annual fall meeting to present the preliminary findings of our research. We presented two posters; one focussed on the value of the tea landscape and the other on managing water resources for a climate-smart approach.


Niladri, Ellie and John at the climate-smart analysis poster

Our sessions were very engaging with a range of questions from those interested in the climate-yield analysis methods, to impacts on the livelihoods of tea stakeholders, to concern regarding a reduction in personal tea supplies.

We are now working on the last stages of data collection and finalising all our analyses, writing up our findings for publication in journals. We are also starting to develop a basic web-based decision support tool for the Tea Research Association to use in-line with their advisory services for member gardens. Training will be undertaken at TRA in February and wider dissemination of research will also occur through a final workshop and community fair with dates to be confirmed.


Enough Tea to Eat?


By John Duncan
University of Southampton

I have recently returned from a visit to Assam as part of a wider project assessing the impacts of climate change on tea plantations and the livelihoods of their workers. As highlighted in a Guardian report, tea plantation workers often suffer from the most distressing aspects of poverty beyond, though often consequential from, a lack of income. This Guardian report presented the challenging conditions under which tea plantation workers live and work, leaving families prey to human traffickers. To add to the vulnerabilities highlighted in this report, climate change is also adding to the burden placed on households as they strive to secure a livelihood. The impacts of climate change could have severe, negative impacts on the ability of tea plantation workers to enhance their well-being. Not only could climate change make it more difficult for tea plantation workers to lift themselves out of poverty in a sustainable manner it could make already precarious livelihoods more challenging.

Here, I offer some insights on how climate change could influence one of the key components of well-being; the ability to access sufficient and nutritious food.

Tea plantation workers in Assam.

Tea plantation workers in Assam.

Typically people go hungry not through there not being enough to eat but due to not having enough to eat, in other words, a result of barriers in accessing food. This view was articulated by Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize winning economist, when he outlined the various means of entitlement people have to access food. These entitlements typically include access to food via own production (subsistence), trade and purchases, labour, and transfers of food. To illustrate how climate change may exacerbate the vulnerability of tea plantation workers I speculate on how it may influence their ability and means to access food.

One of the most common methods of accessing food is through purchasing it in markets with earned money. This is contingent upon two factors: the ability to earn money and the presence and ability of markets to supply food at affordable prices. Tea plantation workers earn money through labouring on tea estates receiving a daily wage of less than 100 rupees (less than £1 a day). On its own this is a low wage; however, achieving this wage is dependent upon there being work available. Adverse climate change impacts to tea bushes could make them less productive and reducing the available work for tea plucking. This, could, in turn have knock-on effects on take home income and subsequent capacity to purchase food. On the other side, it is well documented that climate change will likely result in decreased crop yields (see chapter on Food Security and Food Production Systems). This could reduce supply and also increase the price of crops in markets. Under future climate change scenarios the same wage may result in less food brought home to feed the household.

Tea bushes recently attacked by pests; changing pest attack patterns is one of many potential impacts of climate change.

Tea bushes recently attacked by pests; changing pest attack patterns is one of many potential impacts of climate change.

Within the tea estates are several small rice fields. Tea plantation workers use the returns from these fields to supplement household food consumption. Numerous studies have documented the vulnerability of rice crops to projected climate change with risks spanning increased warming, shrinking day-night temperature ranges, precipitation variability and extreme heat events. Climate change has the potential to reduce the productivity of these small plots and at the very least increase the variability in returns from them. This will have obvious implications for household food security. Furthermore, the vulnerability of accessing food via these small plots may be amplified by other factors. The tenure and access rights of tea plantation workers to these plots may not be secure. If climate change reduces tea production this land may come under threat if estates expand to counteract productivity shortfalls. Also, tea plantation workers may not have access to agricultural extension and inputs such as new seeds and fertilisers to help them adapt to potential climate changes.

Small rice fields amongst the tea plantations in Assam.

Small rice fields amongst the tea plantations in Assam.

Finally, an important source of food for many poor and vulnerable households in India is subsidised rice via the Targeted Public Distribution Service. Tea plantation workers, holding a below poverty line (BPL) ration card, will be eligible for rice provisions from the state. Households obtain a BPL card through means testing surveys which happen at infrequent intervals. Initial conjecture suggests that based upon a rigid form of targeting food assistance may fail to come to the aid of households who fall victim to variable and short-term shortages of food resulting from direct (e.g. crop loss) or indirect (e.g. price increases) climate impacts.

It is clear that efforts to enhance the well-being of tea plantation workers needs to move beyond focusing on providing increased wages; a much broader, coordinated developmental approach is required. Using the example of food access, increased wages will yield more benefits when coordinated with favourable food markets, and access to productive resources such as land and seeds can be more valuable than increased wages by providing a buffer against market volatility. Furthermore, efforts to improve the livelihoods of workers and labourers in rural supply chains cannot be ignorant of the potential impacts of climate change.

Tea Junction


By Niladri Gupta
Tocklai Tea Research Institute

Chai, Garam Chai (Tea, Hot Tea) is a commonly heard welcome call when a train chugs into any railway station in India. The hot cup of tea gives a refreshing feel especially in the early mornings after a night’s journey. Tea and Indian Railways (the largest railway network in Asia and second largest in the world under one management) have closely been associated with each other ever since railways became the main mode of transport in India after its inception during the colonial past.

Journey of the Indian Railways
The railway system in India especially for passenger traffic made its first journey on 16th April, 1853 from Bombay (Mumbai) to Thane. The train comprised of 14 carriages hauled by 3 locomotives named Sindh, Sultan and Sahib (which came from Great Britain by ship) and was part of the The Great Indian Peninsular Railway. The proposal to set up a railway system in India was initiated in Great Britain in 1843 by Lord Dalhousie (who later became the Governor General of India) who realised the interest amongst bankers, traders and shipping companies in Great Britain as well as India in train travel. The railways were set up by private companies which received a guaranteed 5% return annually on investment from the British East India Company. Railways in India actually started in western part of the country because a few freak accidents led to the delay of Calcutta, the capital of the British East India Company during that period, receiving the first railways in India. A story of perilous travel on the world’s great oceans: HMS Godwin the ship carrying the locomotive for the East India Railway from Great Britain was misdirected and ended up in Australia, while the ship carrying the railway coaches capsized at the sandheads in Bay of Bengal before entering the Hooghly River. Finally, the East India Railway saw the light of the day on 15th August 1854. Now, Indian Railways is one of the largest railway networks in the world with 64000 km of track covering 7000 stations and catering to 23 million passengers and 2.68 million tonnes of freight daily. Thus the tag line for the Indian Railways: Lifeline to the Nation.

An old locomotive on display

An old locomotive on display

The Tea Connection
Tea was discovered in India by Scottish explorer Robert Bruce in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley, Assam in 1823 being brewed by the local Singhpho tribe much before the railways came in India. The first tea produced in Assam (a consignment of 12 chests) was sent to England for public sale in 1838. With the advent of tea trade in Assam, north eastern India was connected to the port of Kolkata from Dibrugarh (Upper Assam) by the Brahmaputra navigation channel and from Silchar (Cachar) by the Barak-Surma-Meghna navigation channel. The Railways came to Assam in 1881 with the construction of the railway line between Dibrugarh and Makum collieries to transport tea and coal to Dibrugarh. Similarly, the Chittagong port (presently in Bangladesh) was also connected to Assam via Barak Valley in 1903 to transport tea, though the railway fell into obscurity after the partition of the country in 1947. The Indian section of the route is currently being connected to the rest of the country and is likely to be opened by April, 2015.  A railway journey through the tea landscape of Assam from Lumding to Dibrugarh is a memorable experience as the train passes through vast stretches of the tea estates in south bank and upper Assam (the largest single tea growing region in the world) and through national parks of the region. Though the railways were introduced to transport tea to the ports (directly or indirectly) for export, the Indian railways presently do not carry much tea as part of its freight which declined by 59% in the 1990s due to increase in road network in the country¹, but the livelihood of a large number of vendors selling tea are dependent on the Indian Railways passenger traffic.

A train passing through a Tea Estate in South bank region, Assam, India

A train passing through a Tea Estate in South bank region, Assam, India

The Chai Wallahs
From my childhood days I had a fascination for railway journeys and the thing that hasn’t changed much over the years are the tea vendors (chai wallahs as they are commonly called in India) with a kettle and a bucket of cups getting on, moment a passenger train enters a station and in some cases they are on the train even before the train has come to a halt. Incidentally, they are the last person to get down after collecting their dues when the train has already picked up enough speed. I always wondered why they risked their life so much for selling just a cup of tea. No statistical figures exist of the number of tea vendors who earn their livelihood by selling tea in the Indian railway network but it accounts for a major livelihood source for a considerable section of the population. In accordance, Indian Railways have also given importance to the tea vendors by introduction of licensed tea stalls at all railway stations and automatic vending machines in some stations keeping in mind that tea is one of the most consumed beverages of the country. The vendors have also brought in innovations in the way tea is prepared and served to the passengers in form of masala chai, lemon tea or ginger tea. The tea industry of Assam, North Bengal and South India caters to the 23 million passengers that Indian Railways carry everyday through a few thousands tea vendors, thus critical in supporting their livelihoods. Trains and tea are two very important flag bearers of the Indian economy; jointly promoting the most consumed beverage in the world.

Chai wallah at Mariani Jn, Assam, India

Chai wallah at Mariani Jn, Assam, India


¹Vaidya B.C. (2003) Geography of the transport development in India. Concept Publishing Co. New Delhi; pp 10-11

A future for UK tea?


by Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

“There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.”

The initial stages of our collaborative research venture have sparked great interest for me in tea to a level purely beyond that of drinking it! Our new research project is investigating climate impacts on tea production in Assam, India. From this I’ve developed a side interest in the UK tea industry; an interest I regard as suitably justified given that we consume so much of the stuff. In fact, I have learned since commencing the project that tea is actually grown in the UK, which is a highly exciting prospect. Currently only one tea estate produces tea in England and that is the Tregothnan plantation in Cornwall. According to their website, “Tregothnan is one of the very best tea regions in the world. Its cool climate and inimitable uniqueness is essential for the best of teas.” So how does English grown tea differ to that grown in Assam?

Growing differences: Cornwall V Assam
Acidic soils and a damp environment provide ideal tea-growing conditions at Tregothnan. The Camellia sinensis tea bush grows especially well in the damp and temperate Cornish valleys. In comparison, Assam is also especially damp given the monsoon rains rejuvenates the landscape every summer. Another interesting fact I’ve learned is that because of an early sunrise, Assam’s tea gardens follow local time, known as ‘Tea Garden Time’ or Bagantime, which is an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time!


Tea is grown in Assam during the summer season and in contrast to the UK, India has a much warmer and more humid climate during these months. However, the ambient temperature range for growing tea is approximately 13 – 30°C, which both Cornwall and Assam fall within the majority of the growing season. In fact, anything too hot and the tea leaves burn in the heat. Shade trees are often required in Assam to protect the bushes from direct sunlight. During the winter the tea bushes are dormant in both locations due to low temperatures and reduced daylight hours. There are many environmental factors which are important for optimal tea growth, such as temperature, moisture, soil depth and pH, and such conditions have both similarities and variation between Assam and England. Therefore, I wondered – do the growing conditions alter the taste?

The taste test
Clearly a tea taste test was in order to determine if nurturing tea plants in different geographical localities actually transfers a change in flavour through to the palette. I acquired some pure Assam loose black leaf tea from the Tocklai tea plantation and some classic black leaf tea bags from Tregothnan. Now, the black tea from Tregothnan is slightly misleading, as although marketed as “the tea grown in England” the bagged product is actually a blend of English tea with “finest Assam”, as stated on the front of their merchandise (if I ever acquire any pure English loose leaf tea I will re-do this taste test).


Brewing the tea, I actually found the English tea to produce a darker brew. To me, the Assam tea tasted a little more bitter. There were certainly distinctive differences in the actual taste, but not being a qualified tea taster I’ve struggled to elaborate using the correct descriptive language. There are some top tips here though if you’re that way inclined. I tried both with and without milk and actually found both varieties of the tea very pleasant to drink black. Clearly both are winning brews and I’d recommend either, but I did particularly like the English blend taste. Views from others in a taste test stated the English variety to be “smooth and surprisingly strong”, “tastes quite powerful” and has “the nuttiness of a top Assam.” So if English grown tea is actually as good as Assamese tea for consumers, does the India to UK export industry have something to worry about?

Why grow tea in the UK?

In short, probably not any time soon. Tea is a lucrative business, we love a good cuppa, and the UK imports around £250 million worth of tea each year. English tea is not currently produced on a scale to rival Indian leaves, and probably never will be due to space issues. Tregothnan tea is presently marketed as a luxury brand but perhaps there is scope to plant further tea estates in the UK and cultivate more leaves on our home soil. In addition to a superb taste, a reason why this could be favoured by the UK community is largely environmental. Recent environmental concerns regarding more sustainable food production has led many consumers to think more closely about where the produce they are purchasing is being sourced. The slow food movement has gained traction over the last decade and people are beginning to care about reducing their environmental footprint. Checking your fruit and veg in the supermarket for where it originates from is one way to achieve this. Sourcing food locally and buying what is in season reduces an individual’s collective food miles; something the environmentally conscious are keen to achieve. I know I consistently check the origin of fresh produce and always try to buy British.


So, by growing British and buying local, products can potentially be produced more sustainably and your environmental footprint is reduced. Perhaps this would be good enough reason to grow more of our nation’s favourite beverage on our home soil, as well as it tasting as good as our overseas tea rivals! However, tea is a way of life for many families in India and a decline in production could potentially be detrimental to their livelihoods; the international tea trade remains a significant factor in providing income for the people of Assam, but it’s good to know we can successfully cultivate tasty tea in England should productivity abroad ever decline.


We are hoping to visit Tregothnan next summer to tour the tea estate in person and compare characteristics of tea bush cultivation between Assam and Cornwall. Another blog post will appear then, and perhaps we’ll get our hands on some non-blended pure English loose leaf tea to try.

From the tea estates of Malawi… to those of North-East India


By Jenny Willbourn
MSc Applied GIS and Remote Sensing
2013-2014 University of Southampton

In 2008 I wanted an adventure, I ended up in the middle of nowhere, forty minutes walk from a road. I was on my gap year in Mulanje, southern Malawi where I lived on a tea plantation and taught at the local school for 8 months. Little did I know at the time that tea would shape my time in academia. Three years later I jumped at an opportunity to go back to Malawi and secured my place as Lujeri Tea Estates summer GIS consultant  – a job that ultimately lead me to the University of Southampton to study GIS and RS.

Figure 1 – A view of Mulanje tea, tropical forest and Mt Mulanje.

A view of Mulanje tea, tropical forest and Mt Mulanje.

I extended my stay in Mulanje to collect data for my dissertation which questioned to what extent people’s personal accounts can be combined with climatic change data and to what extent the datasets are looking at the same thing. I concluded that the local Mulanje people, whose lives were intricately tied to the wellbeing of the tea estates and to success of local subsistence agricultural, were certain that climate change was occurring and negatively affecting their livelihoods. However, the climatic data, in general, did not support the views of the local people and hence many of the increasing struggles they were facing were as a result of socio-economic changes, not exclusively climate.

Two years later I was invited to participate in UKIERI exchange programme for a project on climate-smarting tea in Assam, India. This was rather serendipitous as no one was aware of my tea background. I again jumped at the opportunity and assisted in the collection of GPS ground control points across several tea plantations in Assam.

Figure 2 – Assam tea and shade trees. The vines on the shade trees produce black pepper corns.

Assam tea and shade trees. The vines on the shade trees produce black pepper corns.

It was my first trip to India and needless to say it was fascinating – not only from a socio-cultural point of view, but being able to compare the tea management systems between Mulanje and Assam. The tea grown in Mulanje has a smaller leaf and plucking table (the height the bush is pruned to), it also tended to be very well maintained and very closely planted. Importantly much of it is irrigated. In contrast, the tea in Assam is slightly larger, higher and not all the tea estates have the resources to maintain the bushes so well. There is no irrigation. It is important to note, however, that the scale of production in Assam is vast compared to Mulanje. The other visible difference is that the majority of tea in Assam is grown in shade under trees to reduce the ambient temperature, but not in Mulanje. Both regions rely on low-skilled low-paid workers for plucking the tea but both are now looking at mechanisation, although in very different ways. If (or when) mechanisation takes off this will significantly alter the socio-economic relationships between tea plantations and the local people.

The climate setting is also vastly different. Tea, actually a tree not a bush, originated from the Assam region where it is now grown on the huge flat flood plain of the Brahmaputra river, whereas tea was introduced to Mulanje in the colonial period and is able to grow due to Mount Mulanje, a 3000m granite inselberg, that increases the rainfall and lowers the temperature of the local area. It is currently unclear how tea will respond to future climatic changes and how this will affect the people who rely on it.

Figure 3 – An individual tea bush. The top bright green leaves, normally two and a bud, are plucked to produce tea.

An individual tea bush. The top bright green leaves, normally two and a bud, are plucked to produce tea.

During my time in India I stayed in the Tea Research Institute of India and having also met with the Tea Research Association in Malawi in 2012, I was quite surprised to learn that there is not greater collaboration between the various tea research institutions across the world. Sadly, some of these institutions do not have the funding and resources they need, which highlights the importance of cross-country/cross-institutional research such as the UKIERI project.

I also needed to tie in my time in Assam with my MSc research project. Aware of the sensitivity of tea to climate and keen to keep my project quantitative I was drawn towards to the emerging concept of physical water productivity – the amount of yield produced per unit of water consumed. In the context of a changing climate, this concept allows us to assess:

  • Where tea is grown with the least water consumption;
  • What the management practises in high water productivity areas are;
  • What locations have scope for improvements;
  • What locations are most at risk in the future.

This is particularly important as water resources are likely to be under increasing strain as the global temperature rises, precipitation patterns and quantities change, and the world population continues to expand therefore increasing demand.

Based on the work of Zwart et al, 2010 I utilised and adapted the WATPRO model which negates the need for a vast number of agro-climatic variables normally needed for water productivity modelling and replaces them with inputs available from satellite remote sensing data. The aim was to create an average water productivity baseline from which changes can be measured in the future in Mulanje and Assam.

Figure 4 – Mulanje tea estates estimated water productivity baseline 2002-2012.

Mulanje tea estates estimated water productivity (WP) baseline 2002-2012.

I am currently in the stage of processing the results and it is clear that the model has produced sensible results for Mulanje, although it has most likely a slight underestimation. It is also clear that the management of tea in Assam (the use of shade trees in particular) has significantly reduced the viability of the model in Assam. Although there is not yet full validation data for model work such as this, such models are likely to play an increasingly important role in agri-management especially in locations where money, time, knowledge and facilities limit what is known about the tea crop. In the long-term this increases the potential for precision agricultural to ultimately produce higher yields with less inputs.

I’m not sure where my next adventure will take me, but the betting is definitely on somewhere that grows tea!