Sraavya Chintalapati | Assistant Editor
More than just the world’s second-most consumed beverage, tea is also ascribed socio-cultural connotations of nature, tranquility, and health by media narratives. On its website, the American tea company Teavana, has advertised itself as a “heaven of tea” and described its tea-blending process as an artistic craft combining high-quality botanicals and ingredients. On Oprah’s TV show, her Steep Your Soul series presents this drink as offering tea drinkers relaxation. By virtue of the media, tea is not only a beverage but also a classy and harmonious experience for its consumers.
However, in modern-day tea production practices, there is a darker reality often ignored by the media, one of health and economic issues. Tea farmworkers have generally found their working conditions unsafe and unsanitary. Tea laborers in Assam, India revealed they suffered from various medical conditions including but not limited to anemia, rheumatism, and gastroenteritis. Moreover, tea-pickers are economically exploited for their labor; some of them are expected to harvest more than 20 kilograms of tea for $1 – $1.15 per day. Female tea laborers, furthermore are vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence, as they have little privacy while working.
Aside from its impact on workers, tea cultivation causes irreversible negative environmental damage, which also typically goes uncovered by the media. As global conglomerates establish tea farms in areas unsuitable for tea farming, the natural environment of these areas change. Making room for new tea farms, deforestation has eroded soil and contaminated aquatic ecosystems. Intensive monocultural tea farming has altered food chains and increased insects in these local areas, which has led to more pesticide use on these lands to manage this issue.
These human and environmental consequences caused by tea production contrast the mass-mediated images of well-being, relaxation, and earthiness typically associated with this beverage. From this comparison, it is clear that media narratives showcase the sphere of tea consumption over-cultivation. By disregarding tea production’s challenges and highlighting its consumption, the media encourages and normalizes current tea drinking habits among consumers, thereby perpetuating these existing issues resulting from tea cultivation. So long as a stable demand for this drink remains, the average tea laborer and our environment continue to face these health and economic consequences.
This statement should not go without saying that tea has offered its consumers various health benefits throughout human history. In the 1500s, green tea was a medicinal drink consumed in China that aided digestion, improved heart and mental health, and controlled bleeding, among other benefits. Individuals in ancient India drank masala chai to relieve minor ailments. Today, there are various types of tea such as chamomile, oolong, and earl grey — each of which provides its own unique health benefits to consumers. However, in mentioning these benefits, it is important to note that modern-day tea production does not resemble past tea cultivation practices. In earlier centuries, tea farming coexisted with nature; it did not use pesticides, and locals generally managed its cultivation. Today, global conglomerates have altered environments to expand tea production into areas naturally unsuited for growing this crop. Furthermore, modern-day tea practices often rely on pesticides, which damage surrounding ecosystems. These considerations remain largely unaddressed by the media, only attributing this beverage nature, mental, and physical health.
As a tea lover myself, I find myself questioning whether my tea consumption habits directly contribute to the current health, economic, and environmental challenges tea production presents. How can I receive more transparent information about the tea production process? How do I enjoy my regular cup of green tea without perpetuating these issues? And will it ever be possible to make tea production entirely environmentally sustainable? These questions have yet to be answered.
Photo from brittanica.com