Jan 22nd 2010 Issue
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Selling Organic: Pros and cons

Charles Cain - Jan 22nd 2010

Organic Field

Picking Tea

In recent years we've seen an explosion of claims and certifications in the tea industry. At the end of the day, the consumer will (and should) drive the evolution of any controls that protect the quality, environmental sustainability and economic sustainability of the foods they consume. That said, it is important for those of us in the tea industry, and those of us who care about the tea industry, to understand and communicate the pros and cons of any particular certification or quality control approach.

On a personal level, let me say that I believe, without reservation, in the concepts and theories behind movements like Organic and Fair Trade. At the same time, I believe that each of these certifications (and a host of other competing programs) are not yet perfect. My desire in this post is to call attention to the impact of Organic Certification on the premium tea business and some of the current program's shortcomings. I do not wish to discourage people from buying Organic, but to encourage a comprehensive understanding and continued evolution of Organic Certification rules. For example, I would like to see adjustments made in the regulations to account for the inherent differences between growing corn in Colorado vs. tea in Taiwan... but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

To begin, one must understand what makes a product organic. I'm not an agriculture expert, and detailed information on Organic Agriculture is just a few clicks away, so I'll be brief: The USDA tells us that organic foods are those that are "produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation." In other words, Organic foods must use very few chemicals during the growing process. In addition, the soil that the products are grown in must be free and clear of the same chemicals. In practice, the prohibition against artificial fertilizers and pesticides (natural versions may still be used) typically reduces tea production by 30-40% vs. conventional methods.

While "organic" does have real meaning and impact on the environment, it is not focused on the quality of the tea and does not come with guarantees. Organic Certification controls the inputs and the process and strives to protect the environment, but does not involve any testing or verification after the tea is produced to determine whether the rules were followed. Because there are no quality standards for the final product, organic certification also does not guarantee that there are no environmental pollutants or contaminants during processing or packaging.

Being "certified" organic is also a rather complicated process. There are hundreds of different agencies internationally that certify products as organic. Each agency has different standards, and some certifications are accepted in one country, but not others. For example, some products considered organic by the European organic association will not be considered organic by the USDA. Undoubtedly, these complications are due to political reasons as well as health concerns. It is natural to be suspect of a tea company that boasts a foreign "organic" sticker. But, on the other hand, there is no scientific evidence showing that it is dangerous to drink a tea that is not organic (provided the farmer isn't using chemicals that are already banned by other regulations).

Most importantly, because of the bureaucratic complexity of certifications and the small size of many premium tea producers, most teas that could qualify as organic will never be formally certified. The Organic movement started with small producers and farmers markets. Because, as with most good things, people started taking advantage of the movement and improperly claiming the organic label, complex regulatory regimes were put in place. The complexities of Organic Certification and the differences between the requirements of different consuming countries tilts the scales in favor of the huge tea conglomerates (read: "big business") with thousands of acres under production. Some of my best tea experiences involve small lot teas from small, family run tea gardens.

As an aside, it is important to note that between the costs of Organic Certification, the extra effort involved in organic agriculture, the reduction in output of 30%+, and the fact that there are no controls or tests of the final product, the incentives to cheat are significant! Without calling out any particular country or producer, let's just say that if it's common knowledge that 70% of the "Darjeeling tea" sold in the world does not come from Darjeeling, you can imagine that a decent percentage of the "Organic Tea" sold in the US is not really Organic. It is important to buy from growers, distributors and retailers that you trust, regardless of the certification!

In conclusion, I am certainly in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods. I am also in favor of input and quality controls. Personally, I would prefer to see the final output of a garden tested for "real" purity and quality rather than a bureaucratically audited paper trail promising that the rules were followed. At the end of the day, the only approach I'm uncomfortable with from a tea retailer's perspective is the one that says ONLY Organic tea should be sold and consumed. I find it fascinating that the same people who will only buy organic coffee or tea have no interest in organic wine... Regardless, blindly chasing the Organic certification label has the potential to crush the small producer and dramatically reduce the range of unusual and beautiful teas available to the consumer. Organic production accounts for less than 2% of the world's food supply and less than 3% of the US food supply. Less than 1% of US agriculture is organic.

I believe it is important for any tea retailer to offer their customer Organic options. You would be doing yourself a disservice to ignore the movement. At the same time, conventionally grown teas still account for all but a few percent of the total industry output and are still a better value.

NOTE: So that I can't be accused of taking a position merely to defend my employer, let me say that Adagio's full line of unsweetened, unflavored, ready-to-drink bottled teas are USDA Organic and we are a week or two away from rolling out a new collection of Organic teas as well. In fact, a number of our teas and tea bases (for flavored teas) are certified Organic but we have yet to market these as such because the customer push was previously not there. The market is asking for Organic and we are responding. My previous employer had a collection of more than 300 teas, 95 of which were certified organic in Europe. Fewer than half of these were 100% USDA Organic. The PRIMARY OBSTACLE to carrying a greater number of organic teas was not a lack of interest, but a lack of sufficient, reliable supply.

Adagio Teas