Monday, February 07, 2011

Sustainable, Organic, Fair-Trade: A Conversation with Nigel Melican [ii]


EDITOR'S NOTE: At the 2010 World Tea Expo, Cinnabar of spoke at length with Nigel Melican of Teacraft Ltd on the topics of sustainable, organic, and fair-trade tea. What follows here is Part II of a three-part transcript of that conversation. Part I can be read by clicking here.

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Cinnabar: When a farm changes over from chemical fertilizer to organic fertilizer, does that decrease the yield enormously?

Nigel Melican: A lot depends on conditions. I warn people to expect at least a 30% drop in yield. If you've got access (and you shouldn't go into it if you haven't got access) to farm-animal manure, or suitable green sources of fertilizer like compost, then gradually you build it up again. It will never build back up to the level that you get with intensive chemical fertilizer, though. The world average for made tea is about 1000-1200 kilos a hectare. When I went into tea first 30 years ago, the people I was working with -- the good ones -- were getting 2.5 tons a hectare. Now they're getting 4.5-5 tons a hectare.

C: Mostly because of the improvements in fertilizer?

NM: No, improvements in management. The improvements in fertilizer came in around about the ‘80s or ‘90s, but all the way along, people were improving different things. First they brought in herbicides. What they'd been doing was weeding by hoeing, which destroys roots. As soon as you stop hoeing and put herbicides onto weeds, you get a huge jump in your yield. Now the herbicides are banned and you've got to use husbandry practices like planting more densely. All the time they're improving, research and development is improving practices, and the yield responds, productivity responds. With good clones, good practice, good fertilizer, intensive farming, you can get 11 tons a hectare ... it's been done. It’s not the world averages, though, and on an organic farm you'd never do that.

C: An organic farm would never reach that yield?

NM: Never say never, but it's unlikely. It would be theoretically possible. I would like the challenge ... but I don't think anyone's going to pay me to do it. There's an awful lot of bunk talked about organic. The purists say, “yes, it must be absolutely organic, and the phase of the moon has got to be right.” But to the plant, an organic nitrogen molecule or atom is totally similar to an inorganic one. The plant can't tell the difference.

C: I guess there are really two focuses of organic farming. I wasn't even thinking about how it affects the end product, because it seems like that's not the same conversation. The impact on the land is quantifiable and obvious, but the land doesn't know the difference between a molecule of nitrogen, whether it’s certified organic or not, right?

NM: No the land won't, but -- and this is why there's the argument -- people say that organic meat tastes better than inorganic meat, and often it does, because the guy who grows organic takes better care of his animals, is a better animal husband, and that shows up, and it's the same with plants.

C: And that's clearly the case with tea. If you're using practices that end up contaminating the end product with dangerous toxic chemicals, the end product is going to taste bad, so that's not going to fly.

NM: Ultimately you're right, but if you had -- God forbid -- tea contaminated with mercury you wouldn't taste it, and similarly, many of the ways that you fertilize don't have an effect on taste. Where you do have an effect with organic on tea is that you're putting on less nitrogen. Nitrogen leads to fast growth, and fast growth tends to be more about kilograms than it is about quality ... so slow growth, as in the spring flush. Everyone says, go for the spring flush. That's because it's growing slowly, and the quality is definitely better. So organic should come out with slower growth.

C: But in reality, the quality of a lot of product that's labeled as organic tea is terrible.

NM: Yes.

C: I've had some organic tea that was awful, nearly undrinkable. I don't know why that was, but I suspect that it's coming from sources that aren't terribly knowledgeable about tea production.

NM: People are struggling because they're not doing organic very well. There are some good ones, and there are a lot of people struggling. The example I gave of the company that cut out fertilizer to cut cost and got organic certification, they're not doing the best job in the world.

C: Is it that they don't know the best way to grow tea?

NM: I think they know the best way, but they're not doing it. I've had some of their tea and it was not so good. I've also had some of their tea and it's been excellent.

C: My understanding, gained through what I’ve been told in a number of places, is that some of the small estates and small individual tea farms in China, as one example, are growing their tea organically partly because they can't afford expensive chemical fertilizers, so they're using traditional agriculture, which is, by definition organic, but they won’t ever be able to say that their tea is organically produced even though it is.

NM: Yes, well they certainly won't be certified, so they can't be officially organic. And yet, for thousands and thousands of years they've been organic ... and balanced organic. They're sustainable and organic, because they recycle everything back to the land.

C: Traditionally, sustainable agriculture is what works. If you're a small farmer you need to create a system of growing that you can keep going and recycling.

NM: As a small farmer you need to, because you have no choice. Unilever has done it, but they don't have to do it.

C: What are Unilever plantations in India like today?

NM: Unilever doesn't own any farms in India anymore, not one single one.

C: All of their tea farms are in Africa now?

NM: Yes, the ones they have, and they've sold a lot of the ones in Africa too. They've gotten out of vertical production. The second biggest tea company in the world, Tata, has done exactly the same. They've gotten rid of their tea farms in India -- and they're an Indian company! What happened in India was that all tea plantations laid down by the British 150 years ago ... after independence the government saw them as being exploitative and they created all sorts of rules about how the workers on the estate had to be looked after. The plantation owners had to give them subsidized food, and decent housing, and community hospitals and schooling, and what they call the social cost of growing tea under those conditions got out of hand. The responsibility of maintaining an estate that might have a couple thousand workers, with a family structure of 30 thousand or so becomes really high. I worked with an ex-Assam planter in Papua New Guinea, and he had been like the mayor of a city. He had 30,000 people under his control!

C: That's workers, and worker's families?

NM: That's right, and he was the magistrate, he was the mayor, he was the employer. He had all these responsibilities. Companies like Unilever and Tata said it was okay when everyone was in the same boat, but then what happened was that people started growing tea without the factory and selling tea to factories that didn't have any estate of their own. They were called “bought-leaf factories,” and they had no social costs. People want to grow tea on their own, that's their choice ... no subsidy. So they were selling tea to the bought-leaf factory at about half the cost that Unilever could make tea cost, so Unilever said, “how about we offer the plantations to the workers, and we'll buy the tea, and we'll help with the transition to owning their own factory and plantation.” So, all these huge tea gardens are now owned by Indian smallholders.

C: They're still selling the tea to Unilever, but Unilever doesn't own the factories or the plantations.

NM: And the price of tea has come down effectively to the bought tea factory level.

C: Then in the meantime has Unilever started new plantations in Africa that they run?

NM: No they haven't started any new ones. I don't think they're ever going to start any new ones.

C: They're mostly just buying from plantations that are owned by other people?

NM: That's right, and where they have plantations they maintain them. There's not a great deal of interest in being a huge plantation owner anymore for all the social reasons I've just gone through. But where they've got them and can't sell them, like in Kenya, they keep them on. I wouldn't be too surprised to find them selling them eventually, because there is a lot of interest in buying plantations in Africa, there are Indian interests. An Indian company, McLeod Russel, which is now the biggest tea-plantation-owning company in the world, has just bought four plantations in Uganda from Finlays. Finlays traditionally was a plantation company, only now ... I think they have a few left in Darjeeling, but very few.

C: That's a big shift in the whole industry in terms of who owns the base level tea production. Was the majority of that shift in the past ten or twenty years?

NM: Within the last ten. The Indians have been coming over to Africa and buying up the tea estates in Uganda, Rwanda and anywhere else they can find. The Chinese are also coming in, but not buying tea estates. They're building a huge tea-extract factory in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and also, one of the deals that the Chinese bring to the table is that they build parliament buildings for all these little countries. Malawi's parliament building was built by the Chinese, or at least heavily funded by the Chinese, and they throw in universities.

C: Speaking of China and tea in Africa, I've read in a number of places that the greatest importer of Chinese tea is Africa because the traditional forms of tea drinking in Africa use Chinese green teas.

NM: But that's mostly north of the Sahara.

C: Yes, but it's interesting because the tea drinking in Africa and the tea growing in Africa have nothing to do with each other, even though they’re on the same continent.

NM: Well, most of the North Africans don't consider themselves African at all. They have a different heritage.

C: But even in Senegal and Gambia there's the Ataya tea drinking tradition which uses Chinese green tea, and those countries have little to no cultural or ethnic connection with North Africa.

NM: Yes, but that's not a tea-growing area either.

C: No, but I can imagine a gradual shift in production of the southern African tea production to start producing more green tea and to sell to this huge market that's closer at hand.

NM: Yes, and 20 years hence it may well happen. The Chinese are drinking more of their own tea, and the rise in the middle class means you get more of the local market. India has gone from drinking none of the tea grown there 100 years ago to 80% of its tea now.

C: I remember those figures from your talk during the Expo. Do you know what current Chinese consumption of its own tea is?

NM: I could look up figures for you, but it's probably about 60-70% [actually 83% in 2009]. That’s traditionally, not as retail packed tea, but the retail packers are coming in. Unilever is big in China, selling packed tea.

C: Are Unilever and the other big companies selling packaged tea that they're buying from Chinese production factories?

NM: Some of them. I did a project in the ‘80s in China looking for a factory for Unilever to acquire to do tea growing and packing in China for sale. They didn't go ahead with actually buying the factory, but they certainly went ahead with the packing factory in the ‘90s. They're even selling slimming tea now in China.

C: What would you say the difference is between sustainable farming versus organic and fair-trade? I mean, I understand what the difference is as expressed in the marketing language, but more specifically ...

NM: Well, sustainable really means that you're not using things up. Just as with organics, there are sustainability purists who say you should never use anything that can't be replaced. And there are the sustainable realists who say we should at least eke out the non-renewable resources where we can, and wherever we can we'll use renewable fuels, and if it's not renewable we'll go very carefully how we use it and how much of it we use. You have to draw that distinction. My camp is the realistic sustainability one.

C: You can't set up restrictions that are so harsh that it makes it impossible to produce anything.

NM: People do.

C: I know they do, but they shouldn't because ultimately it won't work.

NM: I'll give you an example of the dilemma that you might get into. I was working with a new tea grower in Hawaii -- not one of the small guys that we've seen at the Expo, but someone who wanted to do it on a hundred-acre scale, 200-acre scale. He wanted to be organic, said the production must be organic. He was a berry farmer on the mainland, and he always had an organic farm, and he wanted to have an organic tea farm. So we started off and sourced his tea and his raw materials from Africa and got it planted, and his soil was not acid enough, which is unusual for Hawaii, but this was an old sugar-cane plantation and they'd put down a lot of chalk, to benefit the sugar cane. This was 20 years ago, but it was still there. The normal way that you'd acidify soil for tea is to put sulfur on it. Sulfur is recognized by the organic people; they're happy with it. So he goes off to his supplier and when he sees the sulfur that he's offered, he says, "where does it come from?" and they say it's a by-product of the petrochemical industry, and he throws his hands up in horror! So we look and see what else we can get. It's possible to get sulfur which is rock sulfur, mined sulfur. The dilemma is, would you rape the countryside with big holes, ripping out rock sulfur, or would you use a by-product of the petrochemical industry that has to go somewhere, and is at least greening the petrochemical industry at least a little bit?

C: Why would the organic regulations say that you couldn't use petro-chemical by-products?

NM: the regulations don't say that you shouldn't, but they would prefer that you use the natural sulfur.

C: "Organic" meaning that you take it from the earth regardless of consequences? That makes no sense.

NM: No it doesn't make a lot of sense. That's why I say that sustainability and organic should be done with some degree of realism.

C: None of the national or international organizations that are promoting organic farming are really thinking in terms of sustainability, are they? I prefer not to make such a broad statement, but it seems like the focus is on something that's almost more conceptual than practical.

NM: Absolutely, yeah that is the focus, because it's all mediated in glass palaces in Europe or America and the people there don't get out in the field a lot, and don't see the issues directly and they have a set of ethics that they want to plant.

C: I could tell that, just listening to the people in the panel discussion talk about it. They haven't all stood in a tea field. The way some of them were talking about the agriculture, they didn't really understand how it worked. That distance from agriculture and the people directly involved in it also manifests into a somewhat condescending tone among some of the organizations promoting the organic, fair-trade and sustainability agendas. Even the representative from Utz was talking about teaching the farmers like they were five-year-olds and their organization was going to come in and teach them the right way to do things.

NM: Absolutely right. David Walker, President of Walker Tea, LLC, was telling someone a couple of days ago about how he represents a couple of coffee growers in Kenya and helps them get product to market. He was saying that some of these USAID people will come over and say to the Kenyans, “we're going to teach you how to grow coffee the way the Americans like it.” [laughs] He took one of these coffee industry advisors aside, put his hand on his shoulder and said "these people have been growing coffee for three or four hundred years. They know how to grow coffee. You tell them how you want it. They can do it, but don't go telling them that you're going to teach them, because you are not.” So there's a lot of that element of “experts who know best.”

C: Yes, it can be really preachy. The attitude about it is very removed from the reality of actual workers and actual plantation owners and actual growers, and for that matter, from the science of it, how things work. Although, I will say that the Rainforest Alliance was a little less like that because they seem like they're a little bit more direct about how they get things done.

NM: Of all the [certification] bodies, they're the one I have the most time for. The one that started up in the UK, the “Ethical Tea Partnership,” or ETP, has almost collapsed because the Rainforest Alliance has a much more sensible view of things. Unilever used to be in the Ethical Tea Partnership and I think they pulled away, because they were being targeted, which they didn’t really care for. They had done so much of their own sustainability work that they went in with the Rainforest Alliance and that has bolstered the Rainforest Alliance so much; it's given them so much of a head start.

C: Obviously, the Rainforest Alliance is concerned with forests, and the land around forests, and that pretty much covers the whole tea industry worldwide, doesn't it?

NM: Well, in that Unilever is one of the big people getting certification and they buy from all countries, virtually, yeah, they’re in all countries. And yes, there are people certifying in Indonesia, certifying in Tanzania, in Kenya, and Rwanda and India. I think it’s been a very good strategic alliance, for the Rainforest Alliance to go with Unilever.

[[to be continued]]

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