Stocks of Rooibos are Adequate Through 2014

IRVINE, Calif.

Few plants on earth rival the hardy Rooibos, a tough stringy bush with a 12-foot tap root that thrives in the sandy mountainous region of South Africa’s Western Cape where temperatures swing from below zero to 118 degrees.

Rainfall is always scarce and growers near Clanwilliam, 200 miles north of Cape Town, are concerned the changing climate may reduce a harvest that has quadrupled to 12,000 metric tons in the past decade. Sales topped $78 million last year with half the crop exported to Europe, Japan and North America.

The popularity of Rooibos blends has grown so much that a spate of recent news reports elicited a number of calls to suppliers from retailers and manufacturers worried that leaves from the plant may soon be in short supply.

Scientists at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research predicted the region will become generally drier, according to spokesperson Francois Engelbrecht. “A plausible scenario is a further three degree (Celsius) temperature increase,” he said, according to a report widely distributed by the news service AFP.

This view is “somewhat alarmist,” according to some suppliers.

Scientific predictions span 100 years and while they may ultimately prove true, reports of an extreme drought are exaggerated.

Any tightening of supplies is market driven due to a historical cyclical pattern, explains Hugh Lamond, President of Herbal Teas International, the largest Rooibos importer in North America.

During the period 2003-2007 the area experienced below average rainfall, he explains. “Then in 2008-2009, there were two years of above average rainfall. The past couple of years have seen average rainfall and temperatures. So there is nothing in these patterns for the past decade at least, which seem dramatic or out of the ordinary," said Lamond.

"Market conditions due to a brief period of oversupply are to blame," says Martin Bergh, Managing Director of Rooibos Ltd., the world's largest processor of Rooibos.

“The crop yield is down this year after farmers planted less during the past two years as prices fell well below production costs,” said Bergh. Fewer acres were harvested after prices failed to keep pace with rising costs because of an excess of supply after the good rains. “Prices are now moving up again and farmers will be encouraged to plant more thus increasing supply,” he said, adding that “until the new plantings have grown enough to be harvested, demand is expected to exceed supply in 2012 and 2013.”

Like the fabled grasshopper and the ant, the larger producers annually build a surplus in the good years to compensate for periods when the rains fail.

"Fortunately, we have sufficient stock reserves to offset any shortfall until the market comes into supply/demand balance in 2014 – weather permitting of course!” says Bergh.

No one knows the long-term impact of climate change. It could be severe. Rooibos depends on a symbiotic mix of soil microbes to thrive and while many attempts have been undertaken to transplant the shrub, the variety that tastes great grows in only one place on earth.

Climate change is a given, observes Lamond. “Although it is predicted that it will get drier and hotter, no-one can be certain by how much and so far it has not had a significant negative effect on the Rooibos industry,” he said.

Source: AFP (The Namibian, Windhoek, S. Africa)

Dan Bolton

About Dan Bolton

Dan Bolton edits STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International. He was formerly editor and publisher of World Tea News and former editor and publisher of Tea Magazine and former editor-in-chief of Specialty Coffee Retailer. He is a beverage retail consultant and frequent speaker at industry seminars and conferences. His work has appeared in many beverage publications. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years prior to his career in magazines. Dan is the founding editor of Natural Food magazine and has led six publishing ventures since 1995. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada.