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Organic Vs. Conventional Deep Dive

Lay of the Land

When it comes to appraisals of organic tea from Chinese customers and producers, we’ve heard comments of every kind. Xuanen County’s Xinyuan Cooperative has told us that organic green tea, of course their organic green tea, had a distinct sweetness made possible only by unspecified organic production methods. Huaxing Cooperative in Lichuan County has similarly said that their organically made tea was more fragrant and had a brighter color thanks to their strict ban on chemical fertilizer. Others, such as the folks at Loushuiyuan, have made more measured remarks, saying “no pesticide is probably healthier than not, but at the end of the day people’s standard of living is improving and now they simply just want organic and wild labelled products.” A few conventional producers we’ve met have predictably been dismissive about the need for organic production. Taoshubao Cooperative’s Director Xiang is confident that no one can taste the difference, While Mapo producer Master Wei is confident in the safety of government approved pesticides and fertilizers if properly applied.

Before we address the possible superiority of organic tea in health or taste, let’s first talk about money, the real reason that many in the industry are happy to go on the record about organic production. It is easy to see that the answers above were at least colored by the economic stake that each speaker had in this issue. It is beyond question that organic labeling can contribute to a higher price, yet it is also true that few producers have voluntarily transitioned to organic production standards without government support or mandate. In Yunnan for example, registered organic producers now make up just 11.4% of the Province’s known tea producers. Why so few? Despite the clear benefits for sellers, the official certification process is not free, often happening through privatized testing agencies, nor is the process convenient, as it can take three years before the final certificate is ready. It costs nothing for uncertified producers to tell a consumer that the tea is organic and their unverified claim could possibly lead to more sales and higher prices. Producers have every reason to lie, but some uncertified producers are not exactly lying about their organic status. A lot of tea in China is de facto organic. Older tea trees in  Chaozhou and indigenous varietals in Enshi are seldom assisted by fertilizer or pesticide of any kind. Tea producers just do not have the same demand for yield maximization that grain producers do. Organic production is thus in practice not so risky while official certification is still too much of a headache for many de-facto organic producers.

Grain producers’ need for yield has however rightfully disqualified many producers from organic certification. The traditional practice of dual cropping tea with grains like corn, millet, or wheat means that those nitrogen hungry, pest fearing plants were side-by-side with tea for decades. Anything the farmer used to treat their grain crops was sure to be absorbed by the tea plants as well. Where this practice has continued, in Tunbao, Northern Hubei, Southern Shaanxi, and elsewhere, it is difficult for tea plants to be truly organic. In Lichuan, presence of any of these “high risk” crops is grounds for disqualification in an organic transitioning review. As subsistence grain farming dies out in China, however, monocropped tea fields have become only more and more viable. Tea-grain dual cropping is becoming less and less common. Much more of a concern is the damage already done to historic grain fields that have now switched to tea cultivation.  From the late 1950’s to the early 1980’s, grains were by law and necessity the main crops farmers grew even in mountainous areas where tobacco and tea may have given better returns. As tea’s area of cultivation exploded in the 2000s and 2010s, former grain growers introduced tea to soil that was in some cases already seriously contaminated by decades of pesticide, chemical fertilizer, and even heavy metal pollution. Lingering soil contamination prevents some producers from wrongfully achieving organic labeling and scares others away from even applying.  


Is Organic Tea Better For You?

Probably. Within just the last decade, excessive pesticide use and heavy metal pollution in tea has been variously found in Mainland China, India, and even Taiwan. Nonetheless, increasingly rigorous testing of tea formally marketed by registered cooperatives and companies in China means that even conventionally grown tea plants that have enjoyed extra buds thanks to nitrogen fertilizer or fought of fungi with the help of thiophanate-methyl (TM) are usually producing tea that is perfectly safe to drink. Nonetheless, organically certified teas is tested more thoroughly and held to high standards of safety.

Aside from the obvious potential benefits of tea free from toxic contamination, there is also the more nuanced claim that organically grown tea plants have healthier relationships with soil micro-organisms which may enable them to absorb nutrients in a way that could grant higher long term yields and even “healthier” final products. So the marketing pitch goes at least. There is some evidence to support this claim. One study* notes that organically labeled green teas were, overall,chemically superior to conventionally produced teas when looking at the content of health-related compounds. After testing samples from nine provinces, specifically the catechin index of organic green was found to be on average 20% higher than conventionally produced samples. This ostensibly means that at least these organic samples could have a greater ability to prevent cancer than their than their conventionally grown counterparts. Given how little is still known about tea plants’ relationship with soil microbes and the ever changing nature of nutritional science, it would be wrong to take this one study as conclusive proof that organic production means healthier tea.

 Nonetheless, organic tea is still probably healthier for you, at least on the grounds of safety.


Can you taste the difference?

Probably not. It is absolutely true that chemical fertilizer and pesticide application will affect soil micro-organisms which could affect nutrient absorption and in turn affect the ultimate content of flavor-related compounds like caffeine (bitterness) and theanine (savory-sweet). The same study cited above also has shown that the the lower caffeine content and higher theanine content that was on average found for organic green tea samples could mean a more mellow or sweet final product. Even if we accept that organic green tea is sweeter across the board, it would down right impossible to determine if the comparative sweetness of the tea you are enjoying is absolutely the result of organic production methods by taste alone.

Many factors can augment theanine and caffeine content in tea. These include the presence of shade trees in tea fields, cultivar selection, soil profile, plant age, pick size, exposure to pest or cold stresses, as well as oxidization level and kneading quality in processing. Mapo Green, for example, is famously astringent due to its high bud content and less than careful kneading. It would be wrong to assume that Mapo or similar teas are more bitter due to pesticide or chemical fertilizer usage.

What about those who claimed to have tasted “chemically” teas? Are they all big fat liars? Not necessarily. It is possible that some have been very unlucky and have experienced real oral irritation from concentrated pesticides that were not properly diluted or applied. No one should be directly spraying undiluted pesticides onto the Spring buds that are going into your cup. No tea should ever make your mouth or throat burn. The foul taste of plastic, metal, or rubber that some tea drinkers experience is however almost certainly the result of improper storage or packaging rather than conventional pest control.  


Is Organic Tea Worth the Premium?

Sometimes. In the January Tea Club Box, You got two red teas and two green teas. The red teas are both Dianhong and the green teas are both Golden Green. For each of these teas, one sample is organic and the other is conventionally produced. Of these two organic teas, one is defacto organic and always has been, while the other has transitioned to organic production in the last decade. There is substantial gap in quality between the organic and conventionally grown samples which could merit a gap in price. We won’t give a way any spoilers here, but the reason for this gap probably has nothing to do with organic production methods. Rather it has something to do with the market. Those that have gone through the trouble to stay or become organic producers can expect access to market segments that pay more for tea and are very particular about quality. At the same time, however, two places that produced the finest Enshi Yulu and Lichuanhong, Tunbao and Maoba, have also been very slow about moving to organic production methods. There is no shortage of safe and excellent teas that are conventionally produced. Anyone who  enjoys cheap low mountain Dancong , as do I, should know that the low mountain DC’s five picking seasons are sustainable in large part only with the help of chemical fertilizers. Organic is not everything.

* Here is the original study for those interested:《有机茶与常规茶中主要口感与功能成分的测定与比较》 By李刚、王磊、肖兴基、席运官.