Reading The Leaves: Organic Tea

Organic vs. conventional tea harvesting

Through organic cultivation, tea harvesting can be a constructive element to its surrounding ecosystem.  Using natural alternatives to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides such as crop rotation, mulching and composting, along with promoting natural pest control such as pest-munching insects and birds, creates a thriving environment for both tea bushes and their local wildlife.

The problem with many GMOs, pesticides and herbicides used in conventional tea farming is that although effective in controlling pests, weeds, and disease, they often affect non-targeted animals, insects, and plants.  According to a report from the Soil Association, the average organic field can have up to five times as many wild plants, 57% more animal wildlife, and 44% more birds than that of a conventionally cultivated field.

Workers, too, are exposed to the pesticides and herbicides sprayed on plants, which they administer as many as 15-20 times annually.  Many of these chemicals are listed as hazardous and toxic to humans, according to a report released by Oxfam.  With the growing number of crops that are outsourced to other countries, such as Africa and India, many workers are exposed to chemicals that are otherwise prohibited in many Western countries.

Pesticides have a greater chance at getting into your cup than coffee, in which residue may be burned off during the roasting process.

When it comes down to consumer use, tea is not a washed product like fruits and vegetables.  So if you think about it, the first time tea touches water is when you put it in your cup.

Greg Nielsen, Numi Organic Tea

Artificial and natural flavoring

Artificial flavoring is achieved through the manipulation of chemicals to mimic a natural flavor.  This is commonly done to produce a less expensive and more concentrated flavoring.  The FDA does not require products to list color of flavor additives in the ingredients list on the packaging, which may be why synthesized chemicals created to make flavorings often are not given common names.

Natural flavors are not much better.  The USDA states that, “natural flavor must be from natural sources that have not been chemically modified in a way that makes them different from their natural state.”

However, this does not mean that natural vanilla flavor comes from a vanilla bean.  Since the additives used to create the flavor are exempt from being listed under the ingredients list, the consumer has little idea whether that natural vanilla flavor was made with one or one hundred additives, nor what those additives are.

What we believe is that if you use the best type of tea, and the best fruits, flowers, and spices—real ingredients—then it is going to produce the best, most natural tasting tea.  A lot of times, and in tea specifically, flavoring is used to cover up low quality tea.

Greg Neilsen

Many consumers hold the common belief that organic goods are the healthier choice.  Indeed, produce made with organic ingredients can keep pesticides from being indirectly consumed, however, the organic label can be misread as an overarching statement of the wholesome nature of the product.

According to the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, non-organic, natural flavors are allowed as ingredients in processed foods that have been certified as “organic” or “made with organic ingredients.”  So even when you are picking up a Certified Organic product it is highly important to check the ingredients list for natural flavoring—with the knowledge that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the flavoring itself is organic.

Fair Trade

At the heart of Fair Trade organizations lies the common principles that workers should be given fair wages and should be provided safe and clean working conditions with an emphasis on a minimum exposure to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that have proven to be harmful.  Fair Trade certification is reserved for workers in developing countries as many of these do not enforce the same standards of wellbeing for their workers as are practiced in developed nations.

Fair trade organizations act as a third party that forms relationships with farm workers all over the world, connecting them with companies who are looking to create a Fair Trade product.  Although there may not be a direct connection between the company and those that they source from, Fair Trade organizations play an important role by creating and facilitating these connections—a daunting task that may have otherwise made companies looking to pursue Fair Trade certification hesitate.

Organizations like Fair Trade USA have worked in conjunction with Choice Organic Tea to develop working standards for tea farmers.  In order to achieve such standards, Fair Trade USA works with agricultural laborers to give them the right of representation so that they may democratically manage their own working conditions as well as decide on how the Fair Trade premiums paid on their products should be spent in their community.  Fair Trade premiums are a separate payment on top of a product’s price that is designated for social and economic development of the workers’ community.

Fair Trade standards go beyond worker-centered regulations.  These standards also promote social responsibility to ensure that child or forced labor is not being practiced, and also aim to uphold environmental integrity in the type of farming practices implemented.  Many Fair Trade organizations ban the use of toxic chemicals and incorporate agricultural practices that increase soil fertility, water conservation, and reduce energy consumption.

Fair Labor

Where Fair Trade’s focus stops at the farm, the fair labor certification picks up by covering the rest of the supply chain.  Fair Labor certifications, like the one adopted by Numi Organic Tea called Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits, conduct a thorough audit at every step of the supply chain, from agricultural production to manufacturing and distribution—both domestically and internationally.

“Fair Labor has provided a verification process to ensure that our partners and our supply chain are adhering to working conditions that we have established, and that go outside of the scope of Fair Trade,” said Greg Nielsen.

Community projects

Numi is an excellent example when it comes to educating the public on where their Fair Trade premiums go.  On Numi’s website, one can find a list of the different projects that agricultural workers have implemented in their communities with the premiums they received on their crop.

For instance, if you have enjoyed a cup of Numi’s Jasmine Green, Breakfast Blend, or their Magnolia Pu-er, the premiums paid for these teas have gone to the Fair Trade tea cooperative in Dazhangshan, China, and has supported such endeavors as promoting childrens’ enrollment in high school and college.  Premiums have paid for the construction of a school dormitory and have provided a number of technical and organic agriculture training programs to the 4,000 members of the tea cooperative. Other community projects have focused on communal investment in land and agriculture to support their business, providing transportation to and from work, mosquito netting, and sanitation projects.

“We provide farmers in developing nations the tools to thrive as international business people. Instead of creating dependency on aid, we use a market-based approach that gives farmers fair prices, workers safe conditions, and entire communities resources for fair, healthy and sustainable lives. We seek to inspire the rise of the Conscious Consumer and eliminate exploitation” —Fair Trade USA

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