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The Challenges of the Tea Industry: Environmental and Social Sustainability

Economy / -

sfide industria te
© Everett Kennedy Brown/epa/Corbis

The world tea industry finds itself facing many challenges that could change the geography and economy of the landscape. Oxfam puts the spotlight on such issues as climate, deforestation, and union activities that are all unknowns for this sector.

More than any other crop, tea plantations have changed the face of many countries, but now they face the threats of climate change, the effects of deforestation (from when the original forests were being replaced by the tea plant, Camellia sinensis) water shortages, and demands of fair wages from workers. The increase in average temperatures can affect the production for tea industry.
  Research stations are springing up to study the potential impacts of climate change on the sector and to devise future strategies for mitigation. Multinationals such as Unilever, which operates a factory for instant tea in Sri Lanka, have embarked on several initiatives to educate workers on environmental issues; water conservation for example.
As for low compensation among workers, Oxfam is striving to identify a minimum wage to be allocated to farmers who work on tea plantations, as sometimes worker’s earnings do not even reach the threshold necessary to be considered a living wage.
Equitable remuneration shall be considered a fundamental right by the UN, but in some countries it is still a difficult topic. Tea industry workers offer a model case study.
Tea is the most popular drink in the world, after water and tea plantations are typically found in countries in the developing world. Despite its popularity, some countries were able to set minimum wages but they often do not seem sufficient to ensure a respectable standard of living.  Now there is a coalition led by Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership that has decided to change things.
The strategic campaign to ensure a good standard of living for workers in the tea
is supported by Unilever, the Sustainable Trade Initiative IDH, the certifiers of Fairtrade International, the Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified, Oxfam and ETP. These groups have launched an investigation into the costs, benefits, environmental and social aspects of the cultivation of tea in India, Indonesia and Malawi. The study, entitled “Understanding Wages in the Tea Industry”, revealed “systemic problems locking in low wages". Among the key findings, are the salaries that are set at regional or local level, without taking into account the company’s standards; wages are affected by government policies that apply for every plantation and for all of their employees, thus enabling companies to manage costs and productivity; and finally outline the benefits, such as housing, which often make up a large part of the income. These figures vary significantly from company to company, and workers almost never have bargaining power to negotiate these benefits.
Oxfam, in collaboration with the Ethical Tea Partnership, is carving out a role as a major player through a campaign involving multinational companies and aims to make progress towards an adequate income for both those who work in the plantations and for small landowners, so that they can lead a dignified existence.
The coalition commissioned by Oxfam involves a wide range of subjects, including the largest industries in the tea, such as Twinings, Tetley, Taylors of Harrogate (Yorkshire Tea producers), De Master, Unilever, and retailers such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer, along with governments, trade unions and NGOs.
The campaign will start from Malawi and then expand to different countries and on different fronts: support for business and investment, changes to the process by which wages are established, growth of workers' representatives, access to financing  for small business owners, improving living conditions for farmers, skills training and the ability to access the banking services.

Agriculture Remains Central to the World Economy. 60% of the Population Depends on Agriculture for Survival

Economy / -


In a situation of economic crisis that has lasted for more than six years, the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) in its 2013 "Statistical Yearbook” shows that agriculture remains central to economic development.

In fact, according to World Bank data, a growth of 1% in GDP from the agricultural sector, results in an increase of expenditures of the three poorest deciles, by at least 2.5 times that of the rest of the economy.
More than 60% of the world's population depends on agriculture
Also, according to FAO, more than 60 percent of the world’s population depends on agriculture for survival. So if the population is about 7 billion now and grows to 9 billion in 2015, 12 percent of the total available land, or about 1.5 billion hectares, would be used for agricultural crops.

Ninety percent of this land is found in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa with half of the 90 percent concentrated in seven countries: Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Sudan, Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia. Agricultural production, globally, has been growing at a rate of between two and four percent annually over the past 50 years, while arable land has increased by only one percent per year. Farmland, in the broadest sense, i.e. land used for crops, grazing, livestock and arable land, takes up 37.6 percent of the total land available compared to forestland at 31.1 percent. In this scenario, FAO stresses, climate change poses a major challenge to the future of agriculture, an unprecedented, in that it must cope with rising temperatures, humidity and lack or scarcity of water resources; all in a context where the population continues to grow.
There’s another interesting aspect of the agricultural sector which is indicated in the "Statistical Yearbook" of the United Nations is connected to labor. Agriculture has the highest incidence of unpaid child labor, starting from the ages of between five and seven years old, and the sector with the youngest minimum work entry age.  One example illustrates the issue: about 60 percent of workers under the age of 18, of which 129 million children, are in found in the agricultural sector.
Despite the dependency and non-substitutability of agriculture within the world economy, between 2009 and 2011, this sector has counted for only 2.9 percent of increase in growth of the   global GDP (while the industrial sector accounted for about 25.3 percent growth and the services sector accounted for a 71.8 percent increase). The differences at the continental level, however, are more evident with a growth of 14 percent in Africa, 5.9 percent in Latin America, 5 percent in Asia, 10 percent in China, and just 1.6 percent in Europe, 1.2 percent in the U.S. and 3.3 percent in Oceania. 

The Water Footprint. Water in Agriculture

Sustainability / -

Acqua e agricoltura: speciale impronta idrica su Expo Milano 2015
© Karl Weatherly Corbis

In the total water consumption of human beings there is a factor that stands out: the water consumption related to food. This means that if you intend to reduce the water footprint, you should carefully reconsider not only the use of water in the house, in the bathroom and in the garden, but be especially attentive to agricultural methods and diet.

Many scientists argue that the problem of water will form the basis of future world conflicts. To avoid this we need to learn how to make better use of the water resources at our disposal.

The water footprint calculator
The Water Footprint Network has an online spreadsheet program useful in defining our water footprint. Through the sum of the water needed to produce the goods and services consumed by us, within a defined period of time, the program shows our water footprint. The result could help to improve our personal management of this valuable resource through greater attention to the small gestures of everyday life.

The crux is in the agricultural sector
The crux of this problem must be addressed in the agricultural sector. In the coming years, the demand for water in the world will suffer a sharp increase. This primary sector in water use will be called upon to meet the nutritional needs of a larger population and that will also have changed their eating habits.
In particular, it will have reduced the incidence of predominantly starchy foods in our diets, increasing the protein component.

The water footprint of agricultural products
To see the impact that this transformation can have on water resources it can be useful to know the water footprints of a sampling of products.
The total amount of water required:
  • 300 liters of water used  to produce 1 liter of beer (85% green, blue 6%, 9% gray)
  • 1,000 liters of water used to produce 1 milk (85% green, blue 7%, 8% gray)
  • 1,600 liters of water used per 1 kg of grain (70% green, 19% blue, 11% gray)
  • 1,800 liters of water used to produce 1 kg of sugar cane (67% green, 27% ​​blue, gray 6%)
  • 2,500 liters of water used to produce 1 kg of rice (69% green, 20% blue, 11% gray)
  • 10,000 liters of water used per 1 kg of cotton (54% green, 33% blue, 13% gray)
  • 15,400 liters used for 1 kg of beef (93% green, blue 4%, 3% gray)

Better management, more investment
Better management of water resources is necessary and possible, but it will be essential to invest in upgrades in infrastructure, research and technology. From simple concepts such as the restoration of water pipelines to the use of micro-irrigation and examining the possibility of using crops resistant to different chemical-physical characteristics of the water or the use of desalination.

Over a million people are already #FoodConscious. What about you?

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