Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tea Monoculture and Biodynamic Agriculture

I have a lot of problems with the way mainstream western society looks at gardening and agriculture. Even our choice of language and words is wrapped up in a worldview which I find to be out of touch with reality. The western worldview has historically been bent on subjugating nature, viewing it as something to be controlled, rather than something to be respected and revered. This worldview leads towards practices which work against, rather than with nature.

One of the words I find problematic is the word "pest". In this post I want to propose a different view. There are no "pests", only other life forms which eat plants that we humans happen to cultivate. Whether you believe life on earth evolved, or whether you believe it was carefully crafted by an all-knowing creator, we share it with other creatures, and like us, they need to eat too, or they will die. Naturally, populations of various species wax and wane in complex feedback cycles that create a natural balance. If any one species becomes too abundant, it will be seized opportunistically as a food source by another species. Plants are eaten by large herbivores and by insects which are eaten by other insects and birds, and both plants and animals are vulnerable to some degree to diseases caused by microorganisms like fungi and bacteria.

Pictured above is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which I observed and photographed a few years ago in the fall, in White-clay creek state park here in Delaware; the bird is perched in a cherry tree, where it was feeding. Visible in the photo is evidence of the way ecosystems work--the cherry's leaves show missing chunks and blemishes where they have been eaten by insects. The kinglet was picking tiny insects, spiders, and insect eggs off the leaves, especially the undersides of the leaves. Birds like this kinglet seek out abundant food sources, and naturally keep ecosystems in balance by tending to congregate around the areas that are being eaten most aggressively by insects.

Commercial Agriculture Represents a State Out of Balance:

Most commercial agriculture, including most commercial tea production, represents a state out of balance. In order to maximize yields (to maximize profits), as much of the land as possible is planted with a single crop. In nature, such a state would rarely exist for very long. And as happens naturally, insects, fungi, bacteria, herbivores, and anything that naturally eats (or can adapt to eat) this new abundant food source will eagerly defend on it. Diseases also are able to spread easily through monocultures of crops, as there are no physical barriers separating the plants, as there would be in a natural ecosystem.

Humans thus resort to chemical control in order to maintain their high yields. The following picture represents the way tea is typically grown, as a monoculture crop. No other plants are anywhere visible. This is the way in which most crops are grown, including most crops certified as "organic":

However, there are those in the world of tea who understand these issues, and have adopted a different approach. The Makaibari Tea Estate, whose teas are well-known and available through a number of different tea companies, as well as directly through their website, has managed their land so as to retain forest cover over 70% of it. This practice was inspired by Rudolph Steiner's notion of biodynamic agriculture. The essential idea is that by only cultivating a modest proportion of the land, humans are able to benefit from the natural balance of nature--the physical barriers separating the tea plants halt the spread of disease, and the other plants create habitat for a diversity of natural predators which keep insect populations in check. Furthermore, one can reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers by the use of nitrogen-fixing legume trees. Such diversified ecosystems are also much more resilient to drought and other extreme weather than monoculture crops. In addition, a diversity of plants helps to absorb excess nitrogen. Tea plants do need nitrogen but do not have as high nitrogen needs as a number of trees. The benefits of such a system are numerous and diverse.

But does this model work? Does it produce good tea?

It seems to to me that it works very well. I've sampled a number of teas from Makaibari estate, and my reviews will demonstrate that I consider them to be among the best of the best: a black tea blend from Hampstead Tea, and a long-leaf green purchased through Upton Tea were my favorite two so far. Both were also surprisingly reasonably priced.

Moving Forward?

In today's world, the problems associated with monoculture--including monoculture of tea--are widespread. Even in highly developed countries like Japan which have stricter environmental standards, there are still problems such as soil acidification associated with high-nitrogen use from fertilizing of tea gardens. [Source] There are undoubtedly a number of economic factors which heavily influence practices of tea growing, and there are probably many barriers to its widespread implementation.

But I would like to see biodynamic agriculture, and other similar methods become the norm. I would like to see innovation focus on ecologically sound methods, rather than researching new ways to try to force monoculture to work better or produce even higher yields. I really do believe, based primarily on my understanding of science, that the world will be much better off if we moved away from monoculture and towards a more biodynamic and ecology-based approach. This change won't come overnight, but we would do well to set this approach as a goal to be achieved, and then start brainstorming about how to achieve it.


  1. Alex, let me thank you once again for another wonderful post. I agree wholeheartedly that "the world will be much better off if we moved away from monoculture and towards a more biodynamic and ecology-based approach."

    I'd like to add that factory farmed meat (which produces over 99% of the world's meat)is in my view the most vile example of unsustainable mono-agricultural food production.

    Thanks for spreading this important message!

  2. It take a lot of effort and understanding especially by the authorities to end this monoculture as most farmers will clear off all vegetation before farming starts.
    It will definitely use very much more insecticites thus killing off the chain,
    no insects no birds no natural pollination.