A Good Old British Cup of Tea


By Catherine Rouse
University of Southampton

When you think about tea production, India, China and maybe Africa spring to mind, but what about the UK?

My name is Catherine and I am currently completing my MSc in Applied GIS and Remote Sensing at the University of Southampton. As part of the final semester we are required to undertake a 20,000 word research project, which sounds like a rather daunting task. Yet, the key is to choose a topic that is of interest to yourself and a wider community, and tea definitely hits that brief.

A few months ago Connie and Patrick, two of my course mates, visited Assam as part of a UKIERI project. They collected a variety of data on the locations of shade trees and soil properties within a number of tea plantations for their respective projects. Their post ‘Shade, food and an egg’s lost luggage!’ details a joint experience around Assam and provides additional detail on each of their projects, so definitely take a look. My project moves away from India and instead focuses on tea growth within parts of the UK. This may seem a bit strange as yes, we Brits love to drink a good cup of tea and are one of the biggest tea drinking nations out there, yet when it comes to home grown tea we are pretty limited in awareness, knowledge and experience. Tea requires very specific environmental conditions to grow, and as such the potential for growth (particularly under future climate change) can be modelled. Specifically, my project looks at the climatic, topographic and soil conditions found within the UK and whether, when combined, suitable areas for growing tea can be highlighted through using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and an ecological habitat suitability model. Unfortunately this means I did not get to join Connie and Patrick on their adventure to India, however I did get to go to Cornwall to find more out about existing English tea production, and lucky for me the weather was beautiful.

Me at the Eden project

First stop was the Eden project, located just outside St Austell. Whilst visiting I bumped into one of the gardeners who manages the tea section. Unfortunately they are really struggling with keeping the soil pH at optimum growing conditions, which for tea is around 4.5-5, and attempts to lower the pH through various techniques including fertiliser has led to the presence of the Phytophthora pathogen. So sadly, many plants have had to be removed. The remaining tea plants appeared rather unhealthy and yellow, despite daily irrigation and ‘suitable’ climatic conditions. Tea growth at Eden made me aware of some of the difficulties associated with growing tea and the extreme practices required in order to ensure successful growth. However, my second destination in Cornwall led me to one of the only successful British tea plantations, Tregothnan, where there were many healthy looking tea plants!

Tregothnan estate is located near Truro, Cornwall and is one of the only commercial tea plantations to supply English-grown tea to British supermarkets (blended), as well as high-end London stores such as Fortnum and Mason at a premium. Planting first began in 1999 and after 6 years the first plants were fully established and ready for harvest. Currently tea is grown in around 40 acres of the 6,000 acre estate, although there appear to be plans to extend this to 150 acres over the coming years. Whilst we were there we observed innovative field technology which could contribute to future cultivation; trials for mechanised planting which is currently not undertaken anywhere else in the world. We also had a tour around the estate and the incredible gardens which display a range of rare plants taken from all over the world, on a par with Kew Gardens!

We also got to taste some of this English tea and take some produce home. Ellie was particularly happy as she procured a tea plant to grow at home. Next week I will be attending the Ethical Tea Partnership annual meeting where I will have an opportunity to engage with multiple tea stakeholders and get further ideas for my research, and perhaps kick-start a career in tea!

The team in Tregonthan’s tea tasting room: Catherine, Ellie, Niladri, Sukanya

The team in Tregonthan’s tea tasting room: Catherine, Ellie, Niladri, Sukanya

Sustainable Landscapes and the Tea Value Chain


by Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

“Tea2030… [identifies] a real opportunity for tea to become a ‘hero’ crop. A hero crop delivers more than just a commodity. It also delivers major benefits to the millions of people involved in the tea sector, the planet and the wider economy.”

Having stumbled across Tea2030 whilst doing background reading for our project, I decided to dig a little further to find out more. Initiated by Forum for the Future Tea2030 is a global collaboration bringing multiple stakeholders together to explore the future challenges facing the tea sector. Tea2030 have highlighted 29 big challenges relating to future sustainability of tea landscapes, including factors such as demand for labour, water scarcity, productivity gains, availability of inputs and climate change impacts. These challenges require a multi-institutional response in order to address the entire tea value chain and promote future tea sector sustainability. Tea2030 has facilitated this consortium though bringing together tea producers, brands, certifiers, retailers, government, NGOs and researchers.

A Sustainable Tea Landscape

Given the synergies between some of the identified challenges of Tea2030 and our UKIERI project objectives, I took their website invite offer up to contact the team regarding the possibility of working with them. I received an enthusiastic response inviting me to attend a workshop the team were hosting in London. This half-day event (held in November 2014) provided an excellent opportunity to engage with many tea industry experts and a chance for me to discuss our research with a captive industry-focussed audience; in fact, out of the 30 attendees only two were from academic institutions.

The workshop topic focussed on making sense of sustainable landscapes for the tea sector. A highly interactive atmosphere provided an ideal set-up to push forward key conceptual thinking on defining sustainable landscapes for the tea industry, select a series of case study regions to pursue at the landscape-level, and explore tools which are pushing forward multi-scale sustainable solutions throughout the tea value chain. Following break-out sessions, group consensus refined three internationally important tea regions as case studies: (i) Assam, Northeast India (ii) Southern Malawi, and (iii) Mau, Kenya. These landscapes are of varying scales with high economic value, a diversity of environmental attributes and have both common and distinct sustainability challenges. Various ideas arose regarding a clearer definition of sustainable landscapes, including the need to explicitly integrate sustainable livelihoods. Tools for sustainable landscape management within the three regions were discussed but it was evident that case studies needed further development to fully evaluate the success and potential of landscape approaches.


What’s next for Tea2030?

The final outcome of the workshop identified key roles for members of the Tea2030 consortium to pursue in making the value chain more sustainable at a landscape scale. These roles relate to ideas which have potential to build upon ongoing solutions and address opportunities in the case study regions. For example, an idea to better promote the consumer-producer relationship for retailing tea, similar to the success achieved within the coffee industry in recent years whereby consumers are engaged with the production status of the coffee they are purchasing (e.g. labelling of fairtrade certification; organic; tea estate responsible for production etc.), was suggested as an opportunity for multiple Tea2030 actors to play a role in promoting sustainable practices to enhance the value chain for case study areas. The next stage is for members to take their key roles and translate these into a case for action to ensure that tea landscapes have future sustainability and tea can be championed as a hero crop through a sustainable value chain. Further workshops will be planned to discuss collaborator engagement and progress.