In our modern world and economy, the “healthyness” of food products has become a great concern for the majority of consumers. This applies especially for the so-called developed countries, where food products are a huge and highly differentiated industry, and where consumers have the choice between a wide range of prices, qualities and sets of characteristics related to basically every single product. In front of this backdrop, the term “organic” has become one of the great magic words of our time. Eating and drinking “organically grown” or “bio-certified” products at first sight seems to be a safe way to eat and drink without greater concerns and clean conscience.
As pure tea lovers, our concerns are not so much artificial coloring, preservatives, or the use of MSG, but rather the contamination of our favorite beverage with what is generally referred to as pesticides, whereas pesticides is actually an umbrella term for the use of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides in the cultivation process of the tea plants. All such substances find widespread use in tea cultivation, with the main purposes of minimizing care efforts, maximizing yields from individual plants as well as per square meter of tea garden, optimizing the visual appearance of the final tea product / processed tea leaves, and/or preventing partial or complete losses of harvests due to rodents, fungi or poor soil fertility.
With raising concerns about the possible health hazards of many, most, or all of the hundreds of different existing pesticides, policy-wise we are looking at a global picture that will best be described as intransparent. In places such as the EU or the US, we often see bans newly being imposed on substances that have been in use undisputedly for decades before, so even our “developed” official policies in western countries do not seem to effectively protect us from toxic substances used in food products. While some of the pesticides appear to be highly toxic, e.g. increasing the risk of cancer, others are considered as comparably harmless, at least as long as certain levels are not exceeded. There are even substances used as pesticides that are actually natural, or derived from natural substances, which is where the whole term “organic” is getting blurred. So, how are we, the consumers, supposed to be able to make informed decisions? Even if we were to make the effort of studying the related science and find out all about pesticides, nothing on our tea package will tell us, which substances exactly were used in the cultivation of this particular tea. To be on the safe side, choosing “organic” tea products seems to be an obvious alternative. But: how “organic” is “organic”?
Tea comes from countries such as China, or India, where the abovementioned concerns have in the best case diffused to the country’s academic elite, but definitely not to generally low-educated small rural tea producers. This is why the final pesticide residue level check in a dedicated western lab is only the end of the line, when it comes to ensuring “organic” quality for teas, while in order to get there at all the whole process of cultivation needs to be controlled already at the production sites in the said countries. The various steps of control needed to ensure an “organic” standard involve significant additional costs, making truly organic tea considerably more expensive than tea that is simply grown, processed, shipped, taxed, and sold.
No problem, you might think, it’s just fine to pay some more for a tea that will not cause me to develop allergies, diseases, or early cancer, for that matter. Now, if things would only be that easy… read about “different levels of organic”, “organic” as an empty sales key word, and the role of national legislations in the international blur in part 2 of this article.
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