Tea Research Threatened

Selena Ahmed

Dr. Selena Ahmed

Tea is the canary in the coal mine of climate change, not because the hardy plant faces extinction, but because changes to its delicate flavor offers insights into the economic impact of rainfall and temperature variations.

Tea is one of the most thoroughly studied plants on earth with much of the research conducted in China. Last fall Montana State University researcher Dr. Selena Ahmed was awarded a 3-year National Science Foundation of $931,000 as part of an ongoing NSF program on the dynamics of coupled natural and human systems.

This month the assistant professor in sustainable food systems at MSU Bozeman has come under fire by a Congressman critical of her project in Yunnan, China, to study tea as a model system for understanding how a warming climate is putting stress on specialty crops and the impact of those changes on farmers.

On May 29 U.S. Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon (R), introduced an amendment to a NSF funding bill for 2015 that says the agency can’t spend any money next year on her project, which is part of a collaboration with former colleagues at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, where Ahmed did her post-doctoral studies.

In a report by Jeffrey Mervis in Science Insider Salmon said it is “deeply troubling that while our country is facing fiscal challenges of gigantic proportions … that programs such as this are being funded on the back of the American taxpayer. While I certainly understand the value of predicting agricultural trends for tea, I believe that that is a task that ought to be left to the private sector, the ones that benefit from this kind of information.”

Ahmed is looking specifically at how changes in the composition of the tea being grown could affect its marketability and, thus, the farmers’ livelihoods, reports Science.

“People buy and drink tea for certain qualities. If those qualities are not there, then they may not buy the tea,” co-principal investigator Colin Orians of Tufts explained earlier this year. “What we see happening to tea could be a harbinger of what could happen to agriculture in general.”

Source: Science magazine