I dream of a world where everything is organic, everyone is kind. A world with flowers and bees. A world in which people still have a place, a world on a human scale. But when I go shopping, I don’t always buy organic products. Why not? Because when I’m in the countryside, I visit neighbouring farms, I know the farmers. They run small operations and don’t have certification, but I know how they work, the quality of their products, the care they take in production. I can see their facilities, I can see how they treat their animals, I can talk to them about their agricultural methods. This connection is valuable, it is based on trust, and is worth much more than a logo. The same goes for tea. I trust the AB organic label we have in France, and everything it stands for, but I am very happy to buy from small Nepalese farmers, for example, who have joined forces to form a co-operative with perhaps several hundred members, who I know, and whose practices I understand. These farmers know nothing about the world of certification, and probably would not be able to afford it anyway.
When I travel across some regions of France, I’m alarmed. Where are the hedges? Where are the field margins? When I travel around the world, if I come across a tea plantation that extends as far as the eye can see without so much as a tree, a hedgerow or a field margin left to nature, I run a mile. I can be sure that I won’t find clean teas there, grown in conditions that respect nature. To produce clean teas without the use of pesticides, you need to work with nature. You need ladybirds to attack other insects, you need birds to eat the insects, you need earthworms to aerate the soil. You sometimes need cows, to mix their manure with green waste to feed the worms and enrich the soil. But all these creatures need somewhere to live. Hedges, trees, field margins, even a cowshed. In my job as a tea researcher, which involves seeking out good quality products grown using clean and sustainable farming methods that respect nature, a field containing a single crop covering hundreds of acres is a nightmare scenario.
Here, in Poobong (India), is a landscape that offers hope for biodiversity.
My work has changed a lot in the past 30 years. Before, I would select teas, and then we had to get them here as quickly as possible if they were Grands Crus – we called them “rare and ephemeral”. I would visit every farm, of course, but that’s where the work ended.
Today, our demands – and I’m talking about our own demands just as much as our customers’ – in terms of health, food safety and environmental respect, are so much higher. It’s no longer enough to find teas that are remarkable for their gastronomic qualities. They must also meet strict standards – happily, European standards are the strictest in the world. Food safety is better. Flavour and health have become inseparable, for which I’m grateful. Then it’s up to me to make sure you can taste these rare teas as soon after harvest as possible.
My job not only consists of hunting down rare teas that offer great flavour sensations and tasting pleasures. My motto is as follows: I want the teas that do us such good not to harm those who harvest and process them, or the planet. Such a requirement is not always easy to fulfil. With the sometimes-unacceptable working conditions, pesticide residues and excessive use of fertilisers that destroy river life, there is plenty to contend with. But I’m not a pessimist. Firstly, the higher the quality of tea, the better the practices (there are several reasons for this, such as altitude, which is a factor in the quality of tea due to the cooler nights that impede predators that might otherwise attack the plants). Secondly, a tea can only be exceptional if the greatest attention is paid to the harvest itself and to every stage in the processing, which means planters and farmers must ensure they have the best workers, who are well trained and enthusiastic. Lastly, I’ve gained enough experience now to know what to look for when I visit a plantation in terms of agricultural practices and the way the men and women are treated and how their expertise is honoured. I refuse to work with many producers. And I appreciate even more the pleasure of promoting the amazing work done by many farmers whose methods are exemplary and who know what it means to support their fellow humans every day.
I’d like to introduce you to Kitano Shuichi. Of all the farmers I’ve met in Japan, he’s the most passionate and inspiring about organic practices. He’s been using these methods for 30 years, introduced by his father. The latter, convinced of the health benefits of organic tea, suffered financially for ten years, due to very low yields, but he pulled through. Today, he sells his tea for a good price because demand for organic tea is higher. Kitano Shuichi and his father make their own compost, while others buy it in from outside. But most significantly, they never use anything to do with animals in their compost. So that means no cow manure, for example. They believe in biodynamic methods and use them successfully. They’re so proud of their compost they insist you taste it. But if you want to know their exact recipe, you can ask all you like but they’ll reveal nothing save their good humour, with a smile.
Tea plantations that use organic methods avoid all conventional pesticides and fungicides. They limit the spread of undesirable elements through the use of natural predators or repellents. And to enrich the soil, to make up for the nutrients that the tea plants take up, especially in intensive farming, they need to add a significant amount of organic matter. Organic compost can be bought in, or even better, produced on the plantation. One way of doing this is using vermiculture, a fairly common practice in India. Millions of earthworms are fed cattle manure mixed with chopped up banana leaves, for example. The worms produce excrement, and it is this excrement that is deposited around the base of each tea plant.
On the tea plantations, I come up against a variety of creatures: charming ladybirds, stunning dragonflies, beautiful butterflies, spiders of all sorts, some harmless, others not, tarantulas, leeches, passerines, birds of prey, rodents, worms, mongooses, snakes as long as my arm, including cobras, roe deer and much more. I only meet the Indian bison – the gaur – in Southern India. They are incredibly powerful. It takes several tigers, still present in this region, to bring one down. Gaurs walk quite daintily among the tea plants. While they don’t eat the leaves of these shrubs, they do munch on all the undesirable plants that grow between rows. It’s a good way to keep the weeds down.
Ecology is rarely a priority for politicians, but why should we expect them to do everything? Why complain that the environment does not play a big enough role in political debate or manifestos, and wait passively for things to change at the next elections? We expect politicians to do everything. What if we took matters into our own hands? In terms of the environment, our power is not limited to ticking a box on a ballot paper. Our purse, for example, represents a lot of power. If we don’t want a plastic bag, we can refuse one. If we don’t want a whole heap of packaging, we can refuse it. If we don’t want animal cruelty, we can start by eating less meat. Eat it a bit less often, and choose meat from animals that have enjoyed a healthy life, out of doors, raised by good farmers who care for their welfare. Or fish caught by conscientious fisherman, and not by trawlers that scoop up everything in their path and decimate the seas. We can buy fresh, seasonal produce; we can buy local whenever possible. We can buy from the producers themselves rather than from supermarkets. Each one of us has the power to help limit the often disastrous consequences of the food industry, which produces on such a large scale. We can avoid ready meals. We can stop buying pointless chemical products: people criticise farmer’ practices when they cover their own gardens with weed killers and fertilisers. We can recycle, we can reduce our consumption. We can compost, we can grow our own food. We can think as a community. We can help each other, give to others. We can upcycle, we can cycle. We can cook, we can keep animals. We can walk.
In Kenya, some plantations lie at almost 2,000 metres. At this altitude, insects and fungi that can attack tea plants are particularly rare, due to the low temperatures. So in these conditions, it’s easier to grow teas organically. However, to be certified “organic”, as well as not using prohibited pesticides and fungicides, the soil must be enriched naturally – with compost, for example.