China Tea Forum Showcases the Green Jade of Hubei

ENSHI, Hubei Province, China

Ian Gibbs, Peter Goggi, CK Liew, Rajiv Lochan, Zhonghua Liu, Yuefei Wang, Limin Mao, Qingbo Zong, Zhijun Yin, photo by Dan Bolton

Tea establishes a bond between those who grow tea and those who drink it, making a global family, China Chamber of Commerce Vice Chairman Yu Lu told attendees at China’s 7th International Tea Forum.

The three-day conference Sept. 25–28 was attended by 400 tea executives including 100 overseas traders, tea association leaders, and government officials. Local tours showcased gardens in this hilly region of central China known for its jade green teas.

In addition to celebrating tea, events were staged across the province in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the discovery of selenium, the region’s best-known mineral and a trace element essential for human health.

Provincial activities hosted by the Hubei Department of Commerce attracted more than 200 tea enterprises, 400 selenium industry firms, and nearly 2,000 guests from more than 38 countries. China Daily reported $40 million in trade deals signed and investments totaling 1 billion yuan ($150 million).

Tujia dancers in traditional garb. Photo by Dan Bolton

The population of Enshi and the surrounding region is 3.8 million. The autonomous prefecture is home to the Tujia peoples, the eighth-largest ethnic minority in China, many of whom work at tea gardens. Tujia dancers and performers entertained conference attendees on several occasions and on the final day conducted a traditional harvest offering high in the hills.

The gods of tea are certainly smiling on China, which last year produced 43% of the world’s tea, a total of 2.43 billion kilos. Tea production has grown an average of 8.5% over the past five years and will likely top 2.5 billion kilos in 2017. Export volume is also growing with 329 million kilos shipped in 2016 earning $1.48 billion. Exports are rising faster than production at a compound annual growth rate of 10.4%.

Attendees from India, Africa, and Sri Lanka were pleased to learn that China is also importing significantly greater quantities of their teas. The country spent $110 million buying 22 million kilos of tea last year, up 5.1% from the previous year. The Chinese have developed a taste for black tea, which amounted to 19 million kilos or 86 percent of total tea imports. Imports rose even faster during the first six months of 2017, up 35.2 percent compared to the same period in 2016 and valued at $80.7 million.

Yu Lu emphasized important advances in quality, noting increases in the acreage under organic production, efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and improvements to safety management and traceability. During the conference she invited a delegation of U.S. and Canadian tea buyers to a special lunch with local government officials and suppliers. The gesture began a productive dialog that continued through the event and post-event garden tours.

The conference theme was sustainability and the Chinese growers and executives attending participated in open and frank conversations about issues of concern to buyers. Bill Gorman, chairman of the U.K.’s Tea & Infusions Association, called sustainability “a hugely important topic because for the long-term benefit of all humans and wildlife that live on this planet, we need to carefully plan our future prosperity based on decisions and actions that deliver a sustainable way of living.”

Photo by Dan Bolton

Gorman cautioned that too much of a good thing, is not good. There is more tea available to buy than is consumed. “Is over-supply of tea as much a sustainability problem as an under-supply? The answer is yes,” he said.

A shortage of arable land during a time of rapid population growth “suggests that pressure may come in about 10 years time when you may have reached an optimum level of land for farming, and face the additional pressure of water availability,” he said. “I believe that unless we can achieve a more balanced position between global tea production and consumption, we are in danger of negatively affecting the livelihoods of many millions of tea farmers, and reducing commercial and financial performance.”

“Overproduction is having a detrimental impact on the quality of tea coming to market,” said Gorman, adding. “More tea for the same number of buyers is bringing prices down.”

He said he fears “we may find ourselves in an uncontrollable race to the bottom, where only the very strongest survive and many livelihoods are ruined.” Suppliers are wise to choose quality, he noted: “You cannot be both the cheapest and the best.”

Source: Xinhua News Service