Humans vs. Machines in the Tea Fields

From the time human beings first began devising machines there have probably been other humans decrying the use of those machines and calling for a return to simpler ways. Perhaps one of the best known historical examples of this were the Luddites, 19th-century weavers who revolted at the introduction of machinery they worried would make them obsolete in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Tea harvest machines from Yahoo! Images
Tea harvest machines from Yahoo! Images

As with so many foodstuffs that are grown, one of the first key steps in the process of getting said item to market is the harvest. In the case of tea, this was done in much the same manner for many, many centuries – human beings picked the leaves from tea plants and passed them on for processing.

Of course, some would say that anything that humans can do, machines can do better. Or at least faster, as in the case of tea harvesting machinery. So it probably should come as no surprise that at some point in the course of affairs tea plucking machines came on the scene. They continue to be used to this day.

You could argue the point, but from a purely economic standpoint, a tea picking machine makes sense for many reasons, as opposed to tea picking humans. One machine can likely do the work of many tea pickers and though it might suffer from mechanical troubles, it’s probably less likely to be prone to all of the woes, whims and fancies that are part and parcel of being human.

On the other hand, although tea machines are common in some producing regions, there are some things they can’t do as well as a good old-fashioned Homo sapiens. As noted in an article on tea harvesting that was featured in these pages a while back, tea picking can be a very specific process, typically consisting of snatching a few choice leaves from the shoot. While I don’t claim to be anything close to an expert on tea picking machines, I’d be willing to bet that there are few, if any, that can rival a skilled tea picker for the sheer dexterity needed to do this task.

But the contest between humans and machines continues in the tea fields even now, centuries after the Luddites, and here are a pair of articles on this very topic. One, from just recently, discusses a move to outlaw tea machines, in the interest of saving jobs in Kenya, one of Africa’s most important tea producers. In late 2012, the British press reported along similar lines, with a story whose headline proclaimed, “Tea-plucking machines in India threaten Assam livelihoods,” Assam being a tea-growing region in India and the world’s largest tea grower.

See also: Harvesting Tea by Hand or Machine on this blog.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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