The director of China’s tea quality control programs describes an industry in transition with a goal of uniformly clean tea.
Zheng Guojian, director of China’s National Tea Quality Supervision and Inspection Center, told World Tea News that 7% of China’s tea acreage now meets all export requirements for organic tea imposed by Japan, the European Union and the U.S. National Organics Program.
“China assigns gardens to one of three tiers based on compliance with standards established by the center,” he explained. Tier 1 gardens are certified organic. “Certification is quite stringent, permitting no pesticides and no chemical fertilizer,” he said. Organic production was 182 million kilograms last year, a total that has significantly increased in the past decade.
Half of the county’s tea operations meet lesser requirements created to curb monoculture and ensure ecological practices. These teas are certified as “ecological tea.” There are also strict restrictions on the use of chemical pesticide and fertilizer in the ecological tier. “It is important to emphasize that this tier is readily compliant with purity standards in the EU, Japan, and other importing nations,” said Zheng. In other words, even though this tea may not bear an organic certification, it is still produced at a demonstrably clean standard, he said.
Zheng illustrated the point by showing photos of expansive rows of tea on a beautifully terraced farm that crowded out all other plant life. He said, “This farm would not qualify” under rules established to reduce runoff, protect native plant species and wildlife. Chinese companies no longer rewarded and no longer seek growth alone, but focus on aspects such as safety, environmental protection, energy conservation and efficiency, Zheng explained.
In February 2015 China adopted a “zero-growth” action plan regulating fertilizer and pesticide use by 2020. The goal is to eliminate “excessive application of fertilizer and blind application, which brings about cost increase and environmental pollution. It is urgent to improve fertilization methods and improve fertilizer utilization.”
Farmers on the remaining 43% of China’s tea lands employ traditional techniques that make use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. China intends to reduce both plant protection chemicals that are used to ward off weeds and pests by 20%, and to reduce non-organic fertilizers by 50% by 2020 on these lands.
The action plan adopted in 2015 notes that in 2013 production of chemical fertilizers was 70 million metric tons with 59 million of that total spread on agricultural lands. Soil fertility is low in mountainous China and the use of fertilizer increased grain production by 40% but the application on average of 8 kilograms per mu (mu is a measure of land, there are 6 mu per acre and 15 mu per hectare) is 2.6 times greater than in the U.S. and 2.5 times greater than EU. Surface application is common with only 30% spread mechanically, according to the action plan.
China concluded “excessive fertilization and blind fertilization not only increases agricultural production costs and wastes resources, but also causes ploughing and soil acidification.”
As a result of the plan, during the past five years, sizeable acreage has been certified organic and even greater tracts have moved from Tier 3 into Tier 2 (Ecological certified tea), explained Zheng. Production is reduced an average 19% when growers switch to organic practices which requires greater expanse of organic certified acreage.
According to the five-year action plan, while pesticides are considered essential for preventing and curing plant diseases “due to the large amount of pesticides used, and application methods that are not scientific enough, it brings about problems such as increased production costs, excessive residue of agricultural products, crop phytotoxicity, and environmental pollution.”
Recognizing these problems China adopted a “no-growth” mandate and instituted a program to utilize natural enemies in protecting plants. “Implementing green prevention and control measures such as biological and physical control, and scientifically applied pesticides to curb the situation in which pests and diseases are aggravated and achieve sustainable management,” reads the action plan.
Domestic demand remains steady with robust sales of new types of tea including non-traditional oolong, greens and black teas. During the next two years he predicted increases in both the size and yields at certified tea gardens that export tea.
Zheng is pragmatic. The transformation from traditional cultivation will take time but is inevitable because both the domestic market and overseas markets are aligned. Clean tea is the future, he said.
Sources: Zero-Growth Action Plan (Chinese)
Tea Acreage and Production (2018)
|Certified Organic (Tier 1)||7%||182 million kilograms|
|Ecological Certification (Tier 2)||50%||1.4 billion kilograms|
|Traditional Cultivation (Tier 3)||43%||1.2 billion kilograms|
|Total Production||100%||2.8 billion kilograms|
Source: Zheng Guojian
Special thanks to Andrew McNeill at Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea for translating.