Organic standards

Everyone likes the idea of organic foods. No pesticides, natural fertilizers, etc. What’s not to like?

Well, cost is the first issue. An organic farmer who doesn’t use pesticides is going to have productivity issues. For tea, it can be a pretty devastating drop in overall production. Mr. Gao from Shiding, who grows tea more or less wild on his farm, once told me that his yield is about 10% of what other farmers around him get. A more “conventional” organic farmer in central Taiwan told me that he’s probably getting 30-40% of what he would if he were to farm things conventionally. If you go to the farms you can see the bugs and the weeds – things that hinder productivity in terms of raw tea production. Leaves that are bitten may have that interesting taste, but when whole trees are decimated by bugs that are eating almost all your buds, then you’ve got no tea left to make that beautiful Dongfangmeiren with.

Which means this is all going to cost more. So on the one hand, we love the idea of organic teas, but on the other, are we willing to pay more for it? The taste difference may or may not be apparent – there are so many factors involved in tea production that it’s hard to judge exactly what’s due to the farming methods and what’s due to craft post-harvest. Also, if a farmer’s productivity is only 10% normal, are you really going to be willing to pay 10x the price to get the same amount of tea? That can get quite expensive very quickly.

Conventional farmers, who are still most of them, don’t really seem to think there’s much of a problem. The price pressures of cheaper alternatives – in Taiwan’s case, Vietnam teas and lowland, machine harvested teas – make it so that they feel they just need to maximize the production to get what they can out of the farms. These are not farmers making a lot of money selling a few kilos from supposed ancient tree teas in Yunnan. Regular teas in Taiwan is not very expensive and they harvest 5-6 times a year just to make costs and make a living. The transition to organic methods is very tricky and involves a few years of really low production as the farm recalibrates to a new normal. From what I understand, that’s not an investment most people are willing to make.

More interestingly, during one of my conversations with a farmer who does some organic farming, he said it would actually be better if the organic standards were loosened a bit. At first this sounded counter-intuitive – wouldn’t that be worse? But he has a point as he tried to explain to me. Basically, right now the standards are fairly stringent. That’s great for those of us who are worried about things like pesticides, etc, but in many cases these small-plot farms are right next to other farmers that are practicing conventional farming methods, often farming things that aren’t even tea. If your next door neighbour sprays pesticides, you need them to tell you the day before so you can prepare. You want to make sure that they don’t end up on your tea that then end up in the sample bag that gets sent to the testing centers for organic certification. His argument was this – stringent standards makes it too hard and too risky for people to transition. If you tried, and then failed, then you just invested a lot of time and lost income for basically nothing. That’s not good – and especially no good if you weren’t the one cheating, but you just got caught up because something happened around you. So, his logic goes, if the standards were a little looser, more farmers would actually try to participate and in the end, more organically farmed teas will be available, which is better for everyone. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was a refreshing look at this issue.


Comments

Organic standards — 9 Comments

  1. seems to me from my experience as regards tea, there is no such thing as stringent standards in organics, when you talk about chinese standards. all the tea of china, and all that it is supposed to be, i simply buy a tea, as expensive as i can afford, presently and if the taste is what i imagine it should be, i will buy another load.
    money is only that. a great tea surpasses all.
    to paraphrase: “a good woman is a good woman, a good cigar is a smoke”
    thank you for your wonderful explorations, i love getting your mail.
    m

    • I think that’s a good idea. Maybe instead of classifying it as “organic” or “not organic” they could just publish the numbers from the lab, and along with that publish what would classify as “organic”. That way, people who want only organic things can stick to what is classified as organic, and farmers who have neighbors spraying pesticide, or using some other non organic thing, will still have very low numbers for most of the things the lab is looking for, and people can decide if it’s acceptable for them, rather than just the binary classification

  2. The largest problem isn’t a few farmers getting screwed because they were found noncompliant through misfortune, but rather the common use of illegal and dangerous pesticides.

    The greatest advantage of changing “organic standards” would be voluntary compliance with the aim of greater profit. This might come from loosening standards, but creating a tiered system would probably be more effective.

    Levels for conventional legal Chinese compliance, US compliance, EU compliance, and a few levels of organic compliance on top of those would allow everyone to find their place. Anyone without the most basic compliance would theoretically be at a severe disadvantage in the market.

  3. When did tea production go from conventional denoting use of chemicals? Was there an inital outcry at a perceived reduction in quality?

    • I suspect people didn’t complain because costs went down significantly as well. You gotta remember production volume shoots up with pesticides, and the leaves get prettier. What you think of as reduction in quality may not appear as such to consumers back then.

      • truth be told, i wouldn’t know a pesticide tea from a non pesticide tea. and i like pretty little tea leaves. i’m seventy-two years old my tea drinking days won’t be shortened by a little pesticide.

Leave a Reply