GAUHATI, India – In this humid, lush region where an important part of the world’s breakfast is born, the evidence of climate change is – literally – a weak tea.
Growers in tropical Assam state, India’s main tea growing region, say rising temperatures have led not only to a drop in production but to subtle, unwelcome changes in the flavor of their brews.
The area in northeastern India is the source of some of the finest black and British-style teas. Assam teas are notable for their heartiness, strength and body, and are often sold as “breakfast” teas.
“Earlier, we used to get a bright, strong cup. Now it’s not so,” said L.P. Chaliha, a professional tea taster.
Rajib Barooah, a tea planter in Jorhat, Assam’s main tea growing district, agreed that the potent taste of Assam tea has weakened.
“We are indeed concerned,” he said. “Assam tea’s strong flavor is its hallmark.”
Tea growers want the Indian government to fund studies to examine the flavor fallout from climate change.
Assam produces nearly 55 percent of the tea crop in India, a nation that accounts for 31 percent of global tea production. But the region’s tea production has dipped significantly, and plantation owners fear it will drop further as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change.
Assam produced 564,000 tons of tea in 2007, but slipped to 487,000 tons in 2009. The 2010 crop is estimated to be about 460,000 tons, said Dhiraj Kakaty, who heads the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association, an umbrella group of some 400 tea plantations.
The drop in production has squeezed consumers. Prices have gone up about 10 percent over the past year.
Mridul Hazarika, director of the Tea Research Association, one of the world’s largest tea research centers, blames climate change for Assam’s shortfall. He said the region’s temperatures have risen 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the last eight decades.
Scientists at the Tea Research Association are analyzing temperature statistics to determine links between temperature rise, consequent fluctuations in rainfall and their effect on tea yields.
“Days with sunshine were far fewer during the (monsoon) rains this year,” Kakaty said, “leading to a shortfall in production and damp weather unfavorable for tea.”
Dampness also aggravates bug attacks on the tea crop. Kakaty said a pest called the tea mosquito bug thrives in such weather and attacks fresh shoots of the tea bush. Restrictions on pesticide use because of environmental concerns have added to planters’ woes.
The tea industry employs about 3 million people across India. Most live just a few steps above the poverty line.
They are not the only farmers in India suffering because of the weather. Warmer temperatures have cut sharply into wheat farmers’ yield in northern India – their crops are maturing too quickly.
Nor are tea growers alone in their concern about how the climate is changing the taste of their product. French vintners, for instance, have seen the taste and alcohol content change for some wines, and are worried they could see more competition as climate change makes areas of northern Europe friendlier to wine-growing.