Organic tea is tea that has been produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals. Tea can be organically produced without being certified, but in order for companies to legally sell tea in most countries under the organic label, it must be certified.
Tea is certified as organic by a number of different organizations, and certification requires the avoidance of synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, and additives, and prohibits the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s). Requirements for certification specify that the land used to produce the tea (or other crops) has been free of synthetic chemical usage for a number of years, and that organic and non-organic tea is kept strictly separate during processing. Detailed record keeping and periodic inspections are required in order to ensure that the requirements are being met.
RateTea is committed to sustainability, of which organic agriculture is an important part. We list teas that are organic with an icon: in order to help people locate and identify organic teas. However, we also emphasize that the system of organic certification is not without its problems and downsides. Many small producers may use strictly organic methods but choose not to get certified because the cost and burdens of certification are too high. Organic-certified tea can still be produced in large monoculture plantations, and these teas are not necessarily a more environmentally-friendly choice than uncertified teas grown by more ecologically-sound methods.
Different organic certifying agencies
In the U.S., the most common certification is the USDA’s organic certification, although California also has their own organic certification. The European Union has a unified organic standard, but individual European countries also have important certifications, especially those from France and Germany. Japan also has a standardized organic certification program. Organic certification is complex, at times controversial, and varies greatly among different certifying agencies. For further reading, check Wikipedia’s page on organic certification. Because tea is certified both in countries of origin and countries of sale, all of these agencies are relevant to people interested in the topic of organic tea.
Why buy organic tea? (or organic food in general)
The two main benefits of organic food are minimizing health risks by avoiding toxic chemicals in the food, and protecting the environment. Even when toxic chemicals do not make it into the food supply, exposure to these chemicals can pose health risks both for the workers applying the chemicals, and for people living in areas that become contaminated by the chemicals.
The use of synthetic fertilizers in commercial agriculture results in nutrient pollution in runoff, particularly nitrogen, which damages aquatic ecosystems and can harm or destroy the fishing industry in areas downstream. The use of organic fertilizer in organic agriculture greatly reduces the runoff of nitrogen and the damage caused by such nutrient pollution.
Environmental damage caused by tea production: Tea plants in commercial gardens require periodic fertilization due to nutrients lost as leaves are harvested. Heavy application of nitrogen fertilizers in tea fields can cause soil acidification and serious contamination of local water with nitrates. In China, some tea planters use pesticides such as DDT which have serious ecological impacts, although in 2004 China’s Ministry of Agriculture asked planters to reduce their use of a number of such pesticides. Organic practices are thus important for tea as for many other agricultural commodities.
Toxic pesticides in tea: At least 13 pesticides are commonly used in tea production in India, and if residue from these pesticides is left in processed tea, it can be leached into the cup of tea when it is brewed. The rate of leaching varies greatly from one pesticide to another and can be small or negligible for some pesticides but significant for others. There are records of pesticides being found in packed tea, including pesticides whose use is banned in Taiwan.
Exercising caution with organic products:
Organic tea isn’t an instant solution to problems in tea growing. Many farming practices can be certified as organic while still committing human-rights abuses or being damaging to the environment. Organic labeling and certification is sometimes associated with fair trade, but these two types of certification are separate and do not necessarily go together–and fair trade, like organic certification, also has its share of problems. Also, monoculture in crops and a lack of undisturbed natural ecosystems is a problem that is not solved by organic certification. Some approaches, such as biodynamic agriculture, involve setting aside a certain portion of land and leaving it as natural ecosystem in order to conserve biodiversity and provide other environmental benefits.
These boxed tea bags are certified organic, but the packaging of the tea in individual tea bags and boxes uses more resources than the packing and shipping of loose-leaf tea.
Also, a product being certified organic does not guarantee that it is the best choice in terms of environmental impact. Some products can be processed, packaged, and transported in ways that use large quantities of energy and resources. For example, organic-certified tea packaged in tea bags and boxes uses more energy and creates more packaging waste, in ways that loose-leaf tea, even conventional (non-organic) loose tea, does not.
Other products may not be labeled or certified as organic but may be produced in a more sustainable way. For example, organic fertilizing schemes tend to be an improvement over synthetic fertilizers, but they can still contribute to nitrogen pollution in the same way as synthetic fertilizers. Permacultures of ancient tea trees, such as those in much of China’s Yunnan province, can be preferable to even some organic-certified production.
Organic status can be faked: Occasionally, vendors will falsely label products as organic in order to fetch a higher price for the teas. We do not verify the organic certification status of every tea; in most cases we take information from labels, catalogs, and websites. When in doubt, please look up the certification on your own before trusting that a tea is actually certified as organic. In at least one case, pesticides illegal in the EU were found in tea labeled as “organic”.
Can one trust organic labeling in countries like China?
People often raise concerns about whether one can trust organic labeling of tea from China and other developing countries that have lax environmental standards and/or lax enforcement of agriculture and food laws. The organic food movement in China has been growing and there are standards for organic agriculture in place, but lax enforcement of these standards is a major obstacle to the integrity and success of organic farming there. It’s important to note that there are ways in which China’s labeling and food laws are stricter than those in the U.S.; for example, China requires labeling of food containing genetically-modified organisms, whereas the U.S. does not. This is not however an issue in tea production.
1. Sasha B. Kramer et. al., Reduced nitrate leaching and enhanced denitrifier activity and efficiency in organically fertilized soils, PNAS, Jan. 17, 2006.
2. K. OH, et. al., Environmental Problems From Tea Cultivation in Japan and a Control Measure Using Calcium Cyanamide, Pedosphere, Vol. 16, No. 6, Dec. 2006, pp. 770-777.
3. Jiang Yan, Pesticide regulations impair tea industry, China Daily, Apr. 13, 2004.
4. Shivani Jaggi et. al., Leaching of Pesticides in Tea Brew, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol. 44, No. 11, 2001, pp. 5479–5483.
5. Pesticides found in tea packs at Palace Museum, China Daily, Updated: Nov. 17, 2009.
6. Pesticides found in organic tea, The Local (Sweden), Nov. 5, 2009.
7. Interest in organic food on the rise in China, LA Times, Aug. 08, 2009.