These are not new terms to anyone interested in quality food, good health, human rights and environmental sustainability.
But what do they mean in REAL terms for the earth in which our tea and spices grow, or for the people who grow them? And why should we care?
In May 2016 we travelled as a family to India to find out. Read about it here...
Tim plucks a Darjeeling tea bud. "This", says Rajah Banerjee, "is why we only hire women!"
After visiting many tea estates, we chose one in the Assam region of Northeast India. This very special estate shares its border with Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage site.
Aside from the exquisite flavours of its malty Assam tea this estate has a lot to recommend it, including independent organic certifications from USDA, EU Organic Farming, Japanese Agricultural Organic Standard (JAS), OneCert and India Organic.
It's name means 'frequented by elephants', and for good reason. Unlike most estates where elephants are considered a nuisance and often shot, the elephants here walk freely among the trees. By divine coincidence Ganesha the elephant god is also our symbol!
To be certified organic, tea must be grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Unlike conventional tea-growing methods, growing organic focuses on building up the quality and fertility of the soil and the biodiversity around the farm. Farmers rely on tradition, innovation and ecological processes to grow tea perfectly adapted to their local conditions.This translates into real world benefits for the farmers, the environment and your own body.
As much as we adore the tea leaf, a multitude of insects find it just as tasty. Conventional tea farmers constantly spray their crops with strong pesticides, often 15 to 20 times a year. This is mostly done by low-wage, low-skilled labourers (often children) unable to read the warning labels on containers. Many of these chemicals are banned throughout the western world – yet hundreds of children are handling them every day on tea farms.
There are documented cases of large animals like leopards and elephants being killed after exposure to these pesticides. If they are strong enough to take down an elephant, should they be anywhere near children?
For most pesticide-saturated foods, you can wash the majority of the chemicals off before you eat them. Unfortunately with tea, the only time the leaves are “washed” is in your cup.
Synthetic pesticides pose disturbing health risks, including birth defects, nervous system damage, disruption of sex hormones and increased risk of cancer. Many times chemicals that have been deemed “safe” by the pesticide industry, like DDT, are later recalled when their health risks become known, though by that time the damage has already been done.
Synthetic pesticides have big impacts for the planet as well. Over 98% of sprayed insecticides affect things other than the species they were targeting, meaning that the air, water and soil around the spray site become contaminated.
During heavy rains, many of these chemicals run into rivers and streams where they can contaminate the entire water system. This reduces biodiversity in the ecosystem, destroys habitat and threatens vulnerable species with extinction.
Organic teas contain higher levels of antioxidants than non-organic ones and are less likely to have taken up toxic minerals like lead or synthetic pesticides. Some people even believe that the “caffeine jitters” that come from drinking tea are actually caused by the unnatural synthetic chemicals that it contains.
There’s no doubt that organic growing methods are better for the planet. An organic field typically has five times as many wild plants and almost twice as many plant and animal species as a non organic one. Because the quality of soil is slowly built up with organic methods, there is less risk of top soil eroding away or running into nearby streams and water sources. This improves the habitat all around the farm, not just for the tea bushes.
In many cases, going organic is one of the best business decisions that small tea farmers in developing countries can make. As well as keeping farm labourers safe from synthetic pesticides it also allows them to maintain their agrarian lifestyle by improving the soil every year through natural methods, reducing dependence on expensive, hard to access synthetic fertilizers. Best of all, high global demand for organic tea means farmers are able to charge more for their crop, allowing them to better support their families.
Which brings us to...
WHY FAIR TRADE?
Tea workers are one of the most exploited group of labourers in the world. In addition to the health risks mentioned above, they are usually paid a pittance, work incredibly long hours, are housed in filthy conditions, and are forbidden from joining unions.
Unfortunately even Fair Trade certification does not guarantee estates are free from these inhumane practices. As much as we love our tea there are some compromises we are NOT willing to make for the sake of a perfect cuppa, and exploiting fellow humans is one of them.
We concluded our only option was to work with a single estate that meets OUR standards. These include: treating workers with dignity, paying a fair wage, safe and sanitary housing, and providing the basic necessities - medical care, childcare and educational opportunities.
We are satisfied that our tea is produced in accordance with these standards, and will continue to work closely with our estate to ensure that they are maintained.