A couple of weeks ago, I was a guest of the Indian Tea Association at their biennial convention which brings together producers, packers, researchers and government. My four day total immersion in the world of Indian tea was as educational as it was enjoyable. The old adage that, in the end, there is no substitute for going and talking to the people who work on the ground still holds true.

ETP Chairman Ian Midgley at the IITCSo what impressions did my trip leave with me?  I guess the foremost thought would be about the scale of the opportunity unfolding in the Indian market to enroll new consumers into the wonders of tea drinking. The delegates were shown a string of powerful ads which promote the message that it’s cool to drink tea. There is obviously still massive potential in market penetration, growth and up trading, especially if tea is woven into the habits and lifestyle of the rapidly growing, urban middle classes. And it should be because the advertising glitz was also supported by more evidence of the health benefits of drinking tea. Fresh research from UCLA shows an unambiguous connection between tea drinking and the reduction of stroke risk. Drinking habits which support healthy lifestyles will definitely contain more tea and less calorie dense fizzy drinks.

Ian, Ranjan, and Diya at IITCBut if demand and product credentials are on the rise, what about supply?  Well the  2012 season has not been easy in India. The weather has been cool and pests plentiful meaning that yields will be at best on a par with 2011. After a period of strong growth, total production has been more or less flat for several years now. Climate patterns are not helping with Northern India in particular trending to be warmer and dryer. Whilst work to develop the smallholder sector has delivered good results, investment is needed to improve agronomic practice and replenish the ageing stock of bushes.

The employment model is under severe strain with labour shortages starting to develop as people flood into India’s booming cities in search of higher wages. The way forward to a more productive, better paid workforce is blocked by The Plantation Labour Act which was put in place 60 years ago. The Convention rightly identified that this to be in urgent need of reform. For myself, I find it amazing that we have a major industry here which is forbidden by law from improving its productivity by statutory employment quotas.

Encouragingly, this analysis of the challenges facing the sector came with clarity and frankness from the President of the Indian Tea association, Mr C.S. Bedi, speaking to the plenary session. The leadership knows that the tea plantation sector needs to be reformed in the coming years and much hard work - political, social, agronomic - lies ahead.

So where does all this leave the work of The Ethical Tea Partnership in India?  Well, our philosophy of getting alongside and supporting producers is well appreciated.  Our programmes to improve standards in health, safety and environmental management are showing results and we are bringing expertise on integrated pest management to bear on one of the industry’s hot issues. But it’s also clear from my visit that we can play a larger role. A couple of examples, our work on adaptation to climate change in Kenya may find some resonance in Assam whilst the experience we’re building  with smallholder yields and quality in Indonesia could also prove to be valuable.  We’re looking at both of these areas following the convention.

Speaking to producers about sustainability brings out a lot support for what we’re doing but also some frustration, not about the principles of sustainable supply – there seems to be strong acceptance that these are here to stay and provide part of the foundation for good plantation management – but about the multiplicity of standards now in play. This is a key issue for the ETP and its members as well as for producers.  The practical issues to be tackled on the ground are complex enough without confusion over standards.

The ETP has therefore started convening the Tea Standards Forum, bringing all the standards and certification bodies together to improve consistency on key issues drive forward joint auditing and find ways of improving the value of sustainability standards to all those involved in implementing them.

Reflecting on all this took me back to core questions about labels such as “sustainable” and “ethical”.  There are many angles here. As we were reminded at the convention, food products need to be part of sustainable lifestyles for consumers and it seems tea ticks all the right boxes here.  So it’s imperative that the production side can follow the development of the market so as not leave consumers facing less healthy beverage choices. And as the market grows, it will be imperative that we make wise use of all resources – land, chemicals, people, energy. Improving productivity of these resources is likely to become an increasingly important emphasis of sustainable tea production in the years ahead.