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Organic certification and farming

The Bristol Tea Company is committed to offering teas that are cultivated using the highest environmental standards and practices – currently all the teas we hold have been certified organic at origin. To promote and market teas as organic in the UK a company must be licensed to do so. We have been certified organic by the Soil Association since 2012, but from 2022 I decided to give up this license, for the time being, and so our labels no longer carry the organic symbol. We remain completely committed to organic production, though we are in the process of sourcing teas from farms where gaining certification maybe impractical and expensive. The cost for them (which we can relate to) for the annual license, export and ongoing paperwork can be a significant pressure.

Whilst not currently certified ourselves we recognise the benefit of certifying teas organic means that customers can be assured that they are purchasing a fully traceable product. Whist our labels have changed the contents remain the same and we will continue to offer our current selection – we have been now sourcing direct from Greenfield in Sri Lanka and Belseri in India for over 10 years – and hope this will provide reassurance.

Organic Farming

Organic farming seeks to work with the natural world, encouraging and fostering a crucial biodiversity, whilst building up healthy, fertile soil through the application of organic manures, composts and mulches and away from the use of synthetic pesticides and damaging chemicals. For example, Guatemala grass (pictured) is used as an effective mulch to improve soil, supress weeds and help retain soil moisture during dry periods. In Darjeeling, where some of the finest teas are produced, more and more estates are converting to organic practices.

The agricultural use of hazardous chemical fertilisers and pesticides can contribute to the pollution of water sources, a dangerous working environment and the degradation of soil and land erosion. I believe I witnessed on a conventional, non-organic, estate in Assam spraying being undertaken where workers wore no protective clothing or facemasks. Indeed the BBC in a report ‘The bitter story behind the UK’s national drink’ by Justin Rowlatt in 2015 filmed this happening on more than one estate.

Whilst there are strict regulations relating to the kinds of chemical fertilisers and pesticides allowed on non-organic teas grown for import into the European Union, and any company wishing to trade with Europe needs to comply with these standards, certain EU banned chemicals remain in usage throughout India, China and other tea growing regions. Greenpeace tested popular teas from well established companies in India and China in 2014 and state they discovered not only evidence of high levels of pesticide use but traces of banned chemicals including DDT.

I have spoken with one manager who has worked on both conventional and organic estates. He described how early on his career, at a conventional estate, the company would spray once a year but as pests and diseases became more resistant to the chemicals spraying became more and more frequent, furthering the depletion of the soil. The conversion to organic tends to see a considerable drop in the expectant high yields. And whilst yields may improve over the years they are unlikely to reach earlier levels, especially in Assam. However in Darjeeling, with the reputation and ability to demand high premiums, more estates continue to convert.

Sadly in Assam, which is the largest tea growing region in the world, organic cultivation remains relatively unusual; especially at a time when organic farming throughout India is going from strength to strength. Nonetheless there are plenty of small farms pioneering organic standards; such as the Kanoka Estate where we get a beautiful handcrafted tea. The Organic Small Tea Growers Association of North East India was formed to bring together farmers to share experiences, learn best practice and also promote a growing interest in specialised handcrafted organic green and black Assam teas. I saw during my visit in 2015 a definite interest in the health benefits of green teas. Most small tea growers currently sell their raw leaves to large estates, however OSTGA is working to create a market whereby farmers can sell direct to consumers or into the International market; allowing them a better price and livelihood.

Whilst the Bristol Tea Company is no longer a Soil Association licensee I hope that by offering teas from estates that are certified at origin and from farms that grow using equivalent standards we are committed to producers dedicated to growing and manufacturing the finest teas with excellent agricultural and environmental practices. We believe that these practices are best for the natural environment, better for those working and living in the estates and great for us consumer.