Investing In Soil and the Future of Loose Leaf Tea
In our last post, we shared how Alaya work with tea estates and farms that are committed to better agricultural practices, which include biodynamic and organic farming.
When we first visited the tea growing regions at the base of the Himalayas, we learned about the multitude of challenges facing tea growers in the 21st century: landslides, soil erosion (the wearing away of the most nutrient-rich topsoil) and shifting weather patterns, to name a few. Behind the beautiful scenery, there is a threat of degradation.
Much like elsewhere in the world, these estates are also seeing changes in climate. That is impacting their bottom line, and their crop. Tea in these regions grows on slopes, also making it more sensitive to soil erosion.
Soil health is not a glamorous topic. But it’s important. Really important. Without healthy soil, the loose leaf tea we love cannot grow into a flavorful cup. Many of the tea estates in Darjeeling sit on slopes, at high altitudes of 6,000 feet and higher. They struggle with soil retention. Every year monsoons, which are coming at more and more erratic times, wipe out hillsides. Each time this happens, the soil is depleted, plants are ruined, roads are obstructed, and lives are affected.
But how bad is the problem?
After the Green Revolution in the 1960s, India had better access to pesticides and insecticides. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says this use of pesticides and insecticides has been the culprit for the past five decades. “Their overuse has been degrading the environment. In most cultivated lands, there is depletion of organic matter which affects the water holding capacity of the soil.” That translates to over 5,000 million tons of soil being lost every year.
Healthy soil not only absorbs water better, but also holds down carbon. You may have heard folks bounce around the term, carbon sequestration. Rich, fertile soils can do just that: take the carbon that’s been problematic, and keep it in the ground. If more carbon is stored in soil as organic carbon, then less is stored in the atmosphere, helping to reduce global warming.
In order to do this, farmers have to commit to regenerative farming practices: no tilling, cover crops, using natural and safe inputs, and relying on the rhythms of nature to farm. Much of these practices are embedded in the biodynamic philosophy, which stems from the idea that a farm is an ecosystem, not a monolith. In biodynamic farms, all the elements of the farm, including livestock and wildlife, have a role to play.
That’s why at Alaya, we decided to work with farms that are as nerdy as us when it comes to farming. They’re growing tea in ways that help retain the soil: planting trees to protect from landslides and runoff; eliminating the use of chemicals; using mulch and covering the soil; and lastly, just leaving areas for forestry. Tea estates cannot control the weather. But they can adapt with smarter farming methods that are gentler and more considerate of the slopes they rely on.
It’s not all doom and gloom out there, despite what you might see.
Tea is still more popular than coffee. Tea is actually more widely drunk around the world. If businesses start investing in this kind of regenerative farming and the people who protect that land, we can rebuild nutrients in our topsoil and develop a new model of business that’s kind to all.
The solutions exist. We just have to get on board.