Does 'Organic' matter in the tea industry?

How is "organic" is defined in different cultures will ultimately shape how that same product is delivered with the same meaning to the West.
old growth tea forest in Xishuangbana, Yunnan

Is Organic Tea Important?

This is the first post in a series of posts about the importance of organic tea. Each post will have links to guide you through the series and read the whole story.

What does organic mean to both the grower and the consumer? Both parties need to be guided by the same principles when it comes to organic.

For the consumers in the western world, we demand organic verification especially when our food products are coming from countries like China. But what is actually meant by ‘organic’? Just a label that says a product is safe to consume? A label that justifies the price we pay for our tea in the supermarket aisle or at the specialty teashop? Does the label actually tell us about how ethically the tea got to our teacup? Do we automatically make this same adjustment in our heads? Does organic to us mean no spray, less spray or just no spraying in tea picking season?

Because of the questions raised, you might now like to revisit the packaging of the last tea you purchased to see if any of these questions are answered on the package or on the website linked to any logos that appear on the package. The answer is no. These are some of the reasons why, as a consumer, choosing to be protected by a label is not good enough.

What does Organic mean to the Grower
Now let’s go to the suppliers of teas to the world, otherwise known as the tea grower/farmer and/or processor. What does organic mean to these groups back in China? Organic, or ‘youji shi ping’, is a relatively new term that has been introduced to the Chinese vocabulary only recently. The Chinese actually had other terms to describe and promote either artisan processing methods or products that were grown in their natural environments without the need of additional growth promoters. These terms in Chinese are ‘tian ran’ or ‘wu gong hai’, although they are ambiguous in their meaning and assimilate concepts like weed and pest control. They also are an instrument to tell us as buyers how local growers have a respect for pure untainted plants and, ultimately, tea. All the time the buyer assumes a superior product from a producer of tea that produces tea without the additional growth promoters or pest controls.

What does Organic mean to the Buyer
When we are on the ground as buyers hoping to benefit from the broadly classified organic certifications, its one thing to know you are buying something without growth stimulants or weed suppressants its another thing to actually know if this all necessarily equals a better cup of tea. Further to this with the drama that unfolded with Starbucks buy-out of Teavana then realizing that the new addition to the Starbucks brand was not as clean as it was claimed to be, is a appropriate example of various claims on organic labeling. I think we can safely assume that Euro, JAS, USDA and Australian organic certification are fairly rigorous with their testing. The bigger question is how does this effect the quality of the tea.

In the next post, we will be talking about conditions for tea producers. Continue Reading in our next post →

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How Growers and Consumers see “Organic”

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