At a time when climate change is greatly impacting tea cultivation, efforts are on to make tea estates climate-smart so that the industry develops resilience to uncertain and negative climate change.
A project has been launched by the Tea Research Association along with Southampton University on climate-smartening tea plantation landscapes, which would run for two years. It is funded by the UK-India Research Initiative.
The project is investigating the impact of climate change on tea production and livelihoods in North-East India, revolving around climate variability, land-management practices and climate-smart agriculture practices
Tea is a rain-fed perennial crop, which provides the main ingredient for one of the world's most important beverages. It supports livelihoods across the humid regions of south and south-east Asia and east Africa.
The physiology of tea plants is closely linked to external environmental and climatic factors like elevation, precipitation, temperature, soil moisture and fertility, light duration and intensity, humidity, shade and CO2 concentration. Any adversity in these conditions can significantly impact yield, revenue and livelihoods.
Rainfall has traditionally been plentiful for growing tea, especially in India, but with recent changes in the climate, surface and ground water are becoming important irrigation systems.
Climate-risk is high in Assam, ranging from annual flooding of the Brahmaputra River due to intense monsoon rains and soil water-logging, to winter precipitation deficits with seasonal droughts.
Regional trends indicate annual mean minimum temperatures have increased and annual mean precipitation has decreased, particularly in Assam. Such impacts will have a significant effect on tea crop productivity and directly affect the livelihoods of dependent communities as Assam contributes 50 per cent of India's 1,200- odd million kg.
The effects, which were noticed over the last few years, seem to have become pronounced over the last three years or so, leading an industry executive to say, ''It is no longer climate change, it is climate chaos''. ITA officials said that the weather was hardly following any pattern.
Crop-loss has become almost the norm across the world's tea growing regions. India too has suffered. What worries the industry most is that although it has so far not experienced any major crop loss, tea quality is suffering and pest attacks are increasing. Due to climate change, there has been crop loss during seasons when some of the best teas are harvested (spring and early monsoon).
Broad-scale climate-landscape modelling predicts that tea yields in northeast India are expected to decline by up to 40 per cent by 2050. As yield is directly associated with revenue, changing climate is also likely to impact economic structures of those reliant on tea, particularly the smallholders given their increased vulnerability to changes in the system.