How Climate Change Is Upending China’s Tea Industry
Last August, I swapped the sweltering heat of another Shanghai summer for the cool mountain air of a resort town in the neighboring Zhejiang province. Home to a massive reservoir, the town is known for its water sports, including kayaking and swimming. Yet the reservoir — a local landmark — proved surprisingly challenging to find. Finally, a local pointed me in the right direction. “It’s right over there,” he said, gesturing at the near-empty valley next to his restaurant.
The soil at the valley’s base was cracked and dry; the water that once filled it had almost completely vanished. It was a shocking sight, if an increasingly common one. Last summer brought extreme heat and drought to much of China. High temperatures and low rainfall shriveled the country’s largest freshwater lake, dropping its water levels to record lows and briefly turning the exposed lakebed into a tourist destination. Even the traditionally water-rich southwest had to idle hydropower plants as sections of the Yangtze ran dry.
In this part of Zhejiang, there was an additional culprit: tea. A prolonged drought had left nearby tea plantation owners desperate. They began pumping water from the reservoir to keep their trees alive, draining the water line to dangerous levels and accelerating the evaporation of what remained. As a tea drinker myself, I began to wonder: Can China’s most famous cultural export weather climate change?
The early returns aren’t promising. Last year’s extreme weather produced a weaker, more bitter crop than usual. Now, some farmers and experts are asking if heat and drought could threaten the dominance of traditional tea production regions, including Zhejiang.
Li Xin, chief tea cultivation scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, has surveyed tea plantations all over China. He says that last year’s drought had a devastating impact on the quality and health of the country’s tea trees. Thousands of acres of trees died. Some were so parched they turned burnt red.
Chen Chongmu, an author and longtime tea industry expert, echoed Li’s words, calling this year’s crop “extremely strange.” In the southwestern province of Sichuan, Chen and his team spent over a week harvesting the teas they needed, a job that took only two days in past years.
These delays are causing major problems for tea plantation owners and farmers, Chen says. At a plantation in Zhejiang’s West Lake region, the owner hired a team of tea pickers at the usual time, only to find his crop wasn’t ready for harvest. Another tea plantation, near the eastern town of Huangshan, had an unexpectedly healthy harvest, sending the owner scrambling to bring in more workers.
China is the largest producer and exporter of tea in the world. In 2022, tea production reached a record 3.35 million tons, of which 375,000 tons — about $2.1 billion worth — were exported to countries around the globe, from the United States to Ghana.
Climate change poses an existential threat to this industry. Rising temperatures cause tea plants to produce more polyphenols, resulting in more bitter, less valuable tea. And a market defined by terroir — teas produced meters apart command wildly different prices — is facing the potential extinction of its most famous tea-growing regions. “We have started to see tea production regions shifting from the south to the north, and from the east to the west,” Li, the tea scientist, says.
Zhejiang, a center of tea production and culture for centuries, has been particularly hard hit. Weng Liwen, a 51-year-old Zhejiang-based tea plantation owner, reports that tea production was noticeably lower this year. A farmer with more than 20 years of experience, he’s never seen weather like this. “Even the elderly (villagers) are calling it a ‘once-in-a-century’ event,” he says.
That may be optimistic. Extreme weather events are only projected to get worse in the future. One study, spanning six decades of temperature data, found that heat waves are getting hotter, becoming more frequent, and lasting longer in China.
Other countries face similar predicaments. Kenya, the world’s largest exporter of black tea, is already becoming too hot for some tea cultivation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that, by 2050, 25% of Kenya’s current tea-growing areas will no longer be suitable for tea production.
The influence of climate change on crops can be difficult to project. Li notes that unusually low temperatures this spring slowed down tea production, but also stimulated amino acid production in tea leaves, resulting in sweeter, more pleasant-tasting teas.
As extreme heat, drought, and rainfall become more frequent and harder to predict, tea-growing regions will have to adapt to survive. That starts with rethinking cultivation practices to prioritize adaptability over raw production.
For example, farmers in some Chinese regions have boosted their harvests by trimming their trees close to the ground each year. But such heavy cuts weaken the trees and damage the soil. “When you get extreme weather like last year, the damage done to these trees can be fatal,” Li says.
Varieties also matter. Weng, the tea farmer, recalls that when he was a child, everyone in his village used naturally occurring varieties. Now, higher-producing clonal varieties are much more common. These trees have shallower root systems, making it harder for them to survive tough weather.
“The ecology of the mountains has completely changed,” Weng says. “We can’t keep sacrificing the environment for money. One day karma will get us.”
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Workers on their way to pick tea leaves in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, March 19, 2023. Zhang Qiang/VCG)