Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A New China Syndrome?


Last week we discussed some of the major threats -- both natural and cultural -- to the continued health of tea culture in east Asia. Contributors to the Comments section there have added some interesting and important data as well. In that essay, however, I barely touched on the horrific events in Japan, a truly cataclysmic collision of nature and culture involving an earthquake so powerful it 'appears to have moved the main island of Japan by 8 feet (2.4 meters) and shifted the Earth on its axis' (click here for details); a devastating tsunami that completely obliterated entire towns; and -- the incident that may turn out to have the most ominous and far-reaching implications, not only for Fukushima Prefecture, not only for Japan, but for the planet as a whole -- a series of nuclear meltdowns in several of the nuclear plants in Fukushima. As of this writing it is not known how far that damage will reach -- how many plants in all may be affected, how much nuclear fallout will spread into the environment, or what the longitudinal effects will be on earth, sea, sky, the food supply, or the gene pool.

The first thing to do here is to echo the profound and sadly appropriate words of Cinnabar in her recent post at
It is not reasonable to post anything else about Japanese tea without first expressing the depth of sorrow over the devastation and aftermath that the country is experiencing right now. There is a little that can be said about the tragedy but to say that I hope that support can come from all of the places that can provide it, and that the work of recovering and rebuilding can begin, as the Japanese people – and the rest of the world in solidarity – mourn the tremendous suffering and loss.
This is very well said, and -- alas -- all too true. We are still in shock, and the people (mostly but not all Japanese) in the thick of this crisis are struggling around the clock to contain the damage and secure the affected areas.

I mentioned possible effects on the food supply. I find myself unable to stop wondering what the effects of this radioactive fallout might be on the tea crops of east Asia. Japan itself is first, of course. It appears (though I would welcome more expert information on all this) that the prevailing trade-winds at the moment are blowing eastward from the Japanese Archipelago over the Pacific Ocean; that is one of the broadest and deepest expanses of water on the planet, which from a dispersal standpoint might pass as good news. (The problem with that scenario, of course, is that the ocean is arguably the key element in the global ecosystem -- any serious threat to the ocean is eventually a threat to us all.) We are also told that substantial precipitation of rain or snow would bring the radioactive fallout more or less straight down to the ground in Fukushima -- where it would settle into the soil and water where it falls.

If, on the other hand, the winds should change before the fallout is dispersed or precipitated, the results could be quite different: it could blow down to Tokyo, less than 150 miles to the south; or it could blow west, over and perhaps onto some of the principal agricultural regions of Japan -- thereby contaminating the existing food supply as well as the soil in which future crops ought to be grown.

If the wind carrying such radioactive fallout should pass further into the west, it could conceivably reach the tea-growing regions of Korea, Taiwan, and the Chinese mainland. If this is what ensues, might the tea world find itself with a new sort of 'China Syndrome' on its hands -- tea crops that are irradiated and thus unsafe for drinking? Granted, the distance from Fukushima to (say) Wuyi Shan is between 1500 and 2000 miles; from Wuyi Shan to Kunming is another 1200 miles or so. Are any of those crops actually at risk?

Again, at the moment of this writing, information (and misinformation and even disinformation) is swirling all around us; the situation in Japan is still unfolding; and we do not know exactly what is happening, by any means. Some news commentators this evening reported that the radiation levels in Tokyo were about 20 times above normal, but then opined that that is no more than what one is exposed to during an airplane flight from New York to Los Angeles. Is this in fact true? If so, does it say more about the dangers of air travel than about the current safety conditions in Tokyo? And: will it in any case change drastically over the next few days?

It is worth underscoring that the threat to tea in all of this is much less than the imminent danger -- and the extensive damage already done, the loss of life, limb, and property already suffered in Japan. I almost said 'trivial by comparison'; but the threat is certainly not trivial to those tea farmers whose livelihoods depend on the ability to grow and sell their crops. By comparison to all of these threats, the possible resulting discomfiture to tea-drinkers is indeed trivial. So with the rest of the world, we watch, and wait, and hope.

Some correspondents on the west coast of the USA (and of course in Alaska and Hawaii) have expressed concern about the possible health implications, should nuclear fallout -- whether wind- or water-borne -- reach our shores. A number of websites like this one make recommendations for dietary supplements to be taken prophylactically. Such recommendations might not be a bad idea (though CHA DAO of course does not purport to offer medical advice of any sort; consult your physician before undertaking any alterations to your dietary regimen).

Others have asked what they can do to help. The simplest way, of course, is: send money. This handy link lists a number of ways to do just that, from anywhere on earth that you can get an internet connection (and if you are reading this essay, you probably already have one).

Meanwhile -- on the infrastructural level -- I do venture to offer a modest (but not therefore less urgent) set of recommendation for all 50 of our United States, particularly California, Washington, and any others who may have nuclear plants situated on or very near major geological fault-lines: Take heed, beware, and do not put us in harm's way. George Santayana, in Reason in Common Sense (1905), famously said: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' This is often misquoted as 'Those who will not learn from history ...' -- and maybe that non-verbatim version is the more apt here. Will we learn from these recent catastrophic events of history? How many warnings will we need before we realize that we have to be doubly and triply careful about something as dangerous as nuclear power? How many warnings, indeed, will we receive before it is too late for each of us?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Threats to Tea


Americans of the late 20th century, of the middle and upper classes at least, became pervasively accustomed to peace and plenty. They came to see this way of life almost as a birthright, perhaps, or at least as the reward for the hard work entailed in climbing out of the Great Depression, and also the massive investment in World War II. But panta rhei (or something like that) said Heraclitus: everything flows, nothing stays the same. The wheel of fortune turns; the vagaries of world culture shift and shift again.

Nature, too, is of course at least as complicit in this constant upheaval. There is no escaping such changes; the question is whether, or at least to what extent, Americans (or for that matter any other people) can hope to have continued easy access to the teas we love that come to us from far-off lands.

In the estimation of many people, some of the most extraordinary teas come from Yunnan province in southwest China. If you are a pu'er drinker or a lover of dian hong -- to name only two -- Yunnan is a special place for you. But Yunnan's teas in particular have been subjected to a number of stressors -- some natural, some cultural -- that could seriously threaten their production and availability. Three in particular are worth considering here:

* The 2009-2010 drought in Yunnan has been described as the 'worst in a century'; at least 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of tea plantations, and 3,300 hectares (over 8,000 acres) of tea trees, were destroyed by this drought. My fear is that at least some of those tea trees were old-growth trees used for pu'er; some of them were literally several hundred years old.

* As if the drought were not natural catastrophe enough, there was also a 5.8 earthquake in Yunnan's tea-growing region yesterday. It would be interesting to know what direct tectonic connection, if any, this disturbance had with the terrible 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand last month, or with today's even more cataclysmic earthquake in Japan -- the worst in that country's recorded history, and accompanied by a massive tsunami (which, ironically, has caused widespread fires to devastate urban areas as well). But this Yunnan earthquake is at least the third major quake to afflict the province since 2007, when a 6.4 quake destroyed almost 100,000 homes in the tea-growing area of Yunnan.

* In addition to these natural disasters, there is a growing cultural trend that could well prove to have an even longer-lasting effect on the growing of tea in Yunnan: the increasing popularity of coffee in the province. An ominous citation from the article to which that link connects: '"Coffee now brings in more foreign currency for Yunnan than tea," says Li Gui Ping of the Baoshan Agriculture Center. "Last year it generated around US$47 million, compared to only US$18 million in 2004."' When profit differentials of this magnitude are involved -- and given the labor-intensive and often tedious aspects of tea production -- who could blame farmers who are tired of living from hand to mouth, and undertaking back-breaking labor every day (when the elements do not actually prevent their crops from growing)? Too, the younger generation sometimes sees tea-farming as embarrassingly old-fashioned and rusticated; and though their elders drank (and still drink) tea daily, they themselves are eager to become part of the global 'Starbucks' culture. I have had many young Chinese tell me, 'my parents and grandparents drink tea; I drink coffee.' To an extent, at least, the coffee/tea distinction is a zero-sum game: you cannot raise both coffee and tea bushes in the same square yard of soil. Will the lure of greater income woo tea farmers over to the cultivation of coffee instead?

These are just some of the threats to a constant and comfortable supply of tea in the West. We have not even considered natural pests or diseases that might threaten the health of the tea crops, or the political and economic tensions that could sour occidental relations with the mainland or with Taiwan. I do not mean to sound completely pessimistic; but I do think we should never take our favorite cup of tea for granted. Each sip is a blessing to be cherished.