Can We Save Tea as We Know It?

Photo by: Reya / Bigstock.com

The good news: Currently, tea is completely free from GMO – no transgenic varieties are known to exist commercially. And the bad news: Perhaps, one of the most pressing and challenging issues for the future of tea as we know it is the rapid climate change growers are now experiencing.

In nature, things move slowly; the genus Camellia evolved around 9 million years ago as a tropical forest plant, and now there are 250 Camellia species including our well-loved Camellia sinensis.  The China and Assam tea varieties diverged about 22,000 years ago coincident with the last Ice Age, and the split between the Indian and the Yunnan big leaf types occurred around the time of tea’s first domestication 3,000 years ago in China, where purposeful tea breeding is first recorded from 1,000 years ago. Progress was leisurely. Modern tea husbandry dates back just 200 years, and the development of specifically improved elite cultivars as recently as 80 years ago – and even today it still takes 20 to 25 years to create a new tea cultivar.

Climate change, however, is swift and moving fast. When I started my crop science career in 1963, studying yield and photosynthesis, the atmospheric CO2 level was 320 ppm – it is now 420 ppm – a rise of 31 percent in the time it takes for two breeding cycles of tea. Climate change is global: Polar ice is melting, sea levels rising, droughts are more frequent, flash floods more common and hurricanes more severe. Over the past 80 years in Assam, the annual average temperature has risen 3°F, ambient maximum temperature from 95°F to 125°F, and annual rainfall has declined by 8”.  Climate predictions for 2050 in Assam show a greater than 90 percent reduction in tea suitable land – that’s just 30 years, hence, hardly more than one tea plant breeding cycle. Growing conditions are changing fast, so we need to adapt our crops to handle them. Drought tolerance, salt tolerance, ability to withstand flooding, high temperatures, increased UV, lower humidity – our tea plants will need to have all of these enhanced attributes to survive and to thrive.

The pace of climate change is accelerating, but natural plant evolution is slow and ponderous.  Even conventional plant breeding cannot match the speed and range of adaptation required; it is naturally restricted to the range of genetic variation occurring within the genus. Transgenic breeding searches outside the confines of a genus, and it can design in attributes from unrelated plants. The drought resistance of a cactus perhaps, or from animals the range of salt tolerance of a migrating salmon, or the heat tolerance of a thermophilic bacterium – these extreme attributes could be introduced swiftly and effectively into our tea plants. In the last two decades, GMO plants and animals have been produced with many useful genetic improvements via transgenic breeding.  GMOs exist because they are a fast, precise and a less expensive way to design new varieties with unique characteristics.

While our Camellia sinensis is still GMO clean, don’t think that scientists have been standing still.  They have been tinkering with tea genes in China, India and Sri Lanka. While China is ahead in publishing the tea genome, Indian scientists have perhaps the only free-living transgenic tea bush in the ground. It is not yet equipped with useful climate change modifications, just with marker genes from bacterium E.coli to show that the technique is possible. But the genie is out of the bottle.

So, you should ask, if the capability is there, why hasn’t an agrochemical / agricultural biotech business not messed with our tea plants? Well, in the last 20 years, they have gone for the low hanging fruit – the easy money. Modifying an annual crop like corn is fast, the acreage is huge, and new seed is needed for sowing every year. Tea takes longer to modify, the industry has far fewer acres, and new plants are required only once every 80 years, so targeting an annual crop is a no-brainer. But, having successfully introduced GMO into key annual crops – and as climate change bites into the availability of lucrative perennial beverage crops such as wine, coffee and tea – biotech may soon review their GMO strategy.

Now, wouldn’t it be ironic if our only hope of saving tea as we know it was to embrace a method that we have been striving so hard to avoid?


Nigel Melican is owner and managing director, technical services, at Teacraft Ltd. He’s also the 2018 recipient of the prestigious John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Tea Conference + Expo. Teacraft Ltd. provides comprehensive service to all sectors of the tea industry, including equipment and machinery supply, beverage consultancy, training and research and development. Melican has more than 40 years of experience in the tea industry, and he’s assisted clients in 26 countries – from green tea in Australia to antioxidants in Zimbabwe. His particular interest is in planting tea in non-traditional countries, assisting small farmers with techniques for handmade tea production and marketing, and encouraging the use of sustainable tea growing and manufacturing methods. To learn more, visit Teacraft.com.