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Do you know that organic tea does not mean healthy?

[2019.11.07] Posted By

Have you heard of sustainable tea gardens? These gardens are self-sufficient and able to propagate naturally within the ecology. We spend around two months every year sourcing tea in Yunnan and ensure that all of our Yunnan teas come from sustainable tea gardens.

Although the term may sound similar to organic tea gardens, there is actually a significant difference between the two.

Organic practice is not good enough

Sustainable tea gardens differ from organic tea gardens in that they do not depend on human intervention, whereas organic gardens typically use organic fertilizers and/or pesticides. In a sustainable tea garden, tea trees are able to thrive like wild plants in nature, absorbing nitrogen and other minerals from their surroundings. Although it is rare, some organic tea gardens are also sustainable if they do not use any fertilizer at all.

In reality, the majority of organic tea gardens do use organic fertilizers, and the cost of obtaining organic certification can be high. To recoup these costs, owners may increase production by using fertilizer. However, excessive use of nitrogen-based fertilizers can cause tea trees to grow too quickly, resulting in leaves with lower polyphenol content. This weakens the tea tree and makes it more vulnerable to disease and insect attacks. Such gardens cannot be considered sustainable tea gardens. For a tea garden to be sustainable, it must be free from fertilizer, whether organic or chemical.

What is sustainable tea garden

In a sustainable tea garden, the tea tree does not require any fertilizer from humans and solely relies on nitrogen from the surrounding environment. This makes the sustainable tea garden independent from human intervention, much like a wild plant that can grow without added nutrients.

For plants to grow, they need essential nutrients like nitrogen, carbon, and minerals. While minerals are often abundant in the soil and carbon can be supplied from decomposed plants, nitrogen is the most challenging nutrient for plants to obtain naturally. It is sometimes derived from dead insects, animals, or feces, but this is a rare occurrence. Typically, natural nitrogen is recycled from other dead plants or comes from specific bacteria that grow symbiotically with the roots of certain plants. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air and recycle it underground. Therefore, it is crucial to keep weeds in the tea garden if we want to maintain its sustainability.

Fertilizer increase chlorophyll but to decrease poly phenol

Tea trees in sustainable tea gardens grow more slowly without the use of nitrogen fertilizer. They require less photosynthesis and have smaller leaves with less chlorophyll, which gives them a yellowish appearance. However, the tea leaves in sustainable tea gardens have small cells and a high density.

Tea grown without fertilizer also produces more polyphenols than tea grown with fertilizers. In fact, the polyphenol content of tea from sustainable tea gardens is typically at least three times higher than that of conventionally grown tea. Additionally, tea trees in sustainable tea gardens are often more resistant to insects. When conventional tea gardens are transitioned to sustainable agriculture practices, they may experience serious insect attacks in the first few years. However, after 7 to 8 years, tea trees become more robust and farmers do not need to worry as much about insect damage.

A chain of health

Have you ever considered the chain of good health that can come from drinking healthy tea? Healthy tea is rich in functional substances that provide health benefits to both the tea plant and the person drinking the tea. However, fertilized tea contains fewer polyphenols and more amino acids, which are derived from the nitrogen in the fertilizer. This means that by drinking fertilized tea, we may be indirectly consuming the fertilizer.

It’s important to note that not all organic teas and foods are healthy or rich in functional substances. While organic food may be free from pesticides, it may still contain a lot of fertilizers. If we want to improve our health through tea, we should look for teas that are healthy and rich in functional substances.

Finding quality tea is the same goal as finding healthy tea

I became interested in sustainable tea gardens not only because of health or environmental concerns, but also because of their impact on tea quality. Interestingly, my pursuit of the highest quality aligns with the goals of teas grown in healthy environments.

In China, many premium teas are grown in gardens that do not use fertilizer. The tea trees in these gardens take longer to mature, resulting in tea leaves with more polyphenols and minerals that create a stronger aftertaste.

Yunnan is the kingdom of sustainable tea garden

ea trees are now grown in many countries, but in my experience, Yunnan province in China is second to none in terms of sustainable tea gardens. Yunnan has a large land area, even bigger than that of Japan. 90% of the province is covered with mountains, and in the more remote villages, you can find more sustainable tea gardens that are left in their natural state. The garden owners only carry out weeding once a year before plucking tea. I have devoted nearly two months every year to exploring Yunnan’s tea gardens, and I am always fascinated by the abundance of sustainable gardens there.

However, even though there are many sustainable tea gardens in Yunnan, they are not everywhere. Based on my experience, over 95% of tea gardens in Yunnan are fertilized. Sustainable gardens are only found in remote mountain areas that are far away from the village centers. As is common in China, once a tea production area becomes famous, the price of tea skyrockets, and tea garden owners often resort to using more fertilizers to increase their production and income. Therefore, it’s important to preserve and protect the existing sustainable tea gardens in Yunnan and elsewhere.


Tea garden used animal faeces: Tea leaf turns dark green, bigger and the trunk of tree becomes brown.

The reality of sustanable gardens in China

Interestingly, many people in China are now showing interest in Sheng-tai cha, which means sustainable or ecological tea. This is a positive trend as compared to earlier times when people only focused on the age of the tea tree and the famous production area. However, I have realized that many so-called Sheng-tai tea gardens in China are not really sustainable. This is because many of them believe that organic fertilizers or animal faeces are acceptable. If animal faeces are used in tea gardens, the tea may grow at a fast speed, but the quality drops, even if the tea tree is old. Fertilized tea trees become weaker, and sometimes even centuries-old tea trees just die suddenly. In short, fertilizers make the garden non-sustainable.

To preserve sustainable tea gardens, we need to continuously educate tea garden owners in Yunnan. We need to enlighten them on why fertilizers are harmful to tea trees. Many of them are surprised when they taste tea side by side between fertilized tea and non-fertilized tea. Although they often drink tea, they have never compared teas grown using different methods. Once the local people understand the difference, they understand the value of sustainable tea gardens. We usually pay a higher unit price for those sustainable teas, which is justified because the quality is higher, the tea leaves are richer in functional substances, and the production quantity is lower. We have to motivate them to maintain sustainable tea gardens and not to use fertilizers to sell more quantity but lower quality tea. At the same time, we have to make it clear that we are willing to pay more, not because of the famous production area, but because of the different quality of tea.

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