The Chinese Tea Study that the Tea Party Wants to Suppress

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) just cut funding to a science program that he says "didn't pass the laugh test" — a long-term study on how climate change is affecting Chinese tea crops. But this study isn't funny. Instead, it offers the darkest picture yet of how our crops will change in the years ahead.

The National Science Foundation emerged largely unscathed in the 2015 budget, but not this tea study. For Salmon, a Tea Party Republican, cutting it was a political trifecta: an opportunity to wreak fiscal vengeance upon government pork, climate change science, and China with one swing of his mighty budget-cutting axe. On his Facebook page, Smith boasted that he had stopped "the wasteful spending of your tax dollars" for "the study of a foreign cash crop."

In truth, this was a pyrrhic victory for Salmon. Under the terms of the $931,000 grant, all the money has been committed up front. That small detail didn't appear on Salmon's Facebook page, so it didn't dampen the outpouring of support he received from his Arizona constituents. "YOU GO MATT!!!!," commented one. Great move!" said another, adding that, "We should also be decreasing foreign aid to countries whose citizens enter our country illegally in order to improve their lot."

And, another: "For once, I agree with you on this one. Who really gives a hoot about the price of tea in China?"

Well, actually, we should. One reason is that half of that "foreign cash crop" is exported to countries like ours, where it generates $2 billion per year for U.S. grocery stores. (Tea is the second most popular beverage in the world, after water.) But the main reason is that tea growers abroad are reporting that changing weather conditions are already having an impact on the yield and flavor of tea crops. What we see happening to tea could be a harbinger of what could happen to agriculture in general.

The Future of Agriculture

Colin Orians, a professor of biology at Tufts, has been leading the study, which aims to specifically understand better what chemical changes are occurring in tea leaves in response to different environmental conditions.

As he explained in an interview with the Boston Globe:

Q: How did you get involved in this research?

A: Most crops, consider lettuce, have been bred to grow fast, and thus it is not surprising that crops like lettuce do not provide us with some of the known health benefits, such as antioxidants, that ancestral crops might have contained. This is exacerbated by the fact that we grow crops under the most favorable environmental conditions that cause a plant to prioritize growth over defense. Tea is different! It has always been valued for its chemistry, its medicinal properties, and I was immediately intrigued by the system. How will climate change alter its chemistry? Can we use plant defense theory to understand and predict future changes in chemistry? How will these changes affect consumers and ultimately farmer livelihoods?

Q: Typically, when people think about the effect climate change will have on agriculture, they worry about crops failing. Do you expect these changes are already occurring in other agricultural products?

A: Yes, we tend to focus so much on yield when thinking about climate change but this emphasis loses sight of the importance of quality. Is climate changing the quality of spinach, kale or blueberries? I think we all could come up with a list of a dozen food and beverage items that we regularly consume because they are good for us. I want to know how those benefits are, or might be, changing.

Although tea-growing countries, such as India, are likewise seeing their crops threatened by changing weather conditions, Orians wanted to focus the study on China because it produces 38% of the world's tea, or 1.75 million tons, the largest share of any country in the world.

According to Orians, the monsoon is a particularly important climatic system in tea growing regions, like those in China's southwestern tea belt, where there are multiple harvests a year, some during the monsoon season and others during the dry season. The wet seasons produce a lower-quality tea that usually commands a lower price for farmers.

Monsoon Tea

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluded that climate change will increase monsoon precipitation. It will also cause monsoons to start earlier and retreat later, resulting in a longer monsoon season in many regions. For tea growers, that would mean that a larger percentage of each annual harvest would be produced during periods of rain.

"It is known that the chemistry of tea shifts in response to the onset of the monsoons," Orians adds. "We've showed that within 5 days of the arrival of the monsoons, what farmers harvest has twice the biomass but lower concentrations of some key phenolics known to be important in tea."

In order to further gauge the change in tea quality, the researchers will also be surveying consumers in the U.S. and Europe, to see if they can perceive differences in taste. Whether the Tea Party will be able to perceive the implications of this research for American farmers is another question entirely.