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How much does it matter to use certified organic teas?

Sparying Pesticide, California
Pesticide spraying in California
…at the height of industrialization of agriculture in the West… huge landmass was converted into deserts of a single plant each…
This is a question posted by Mariël van de Weert in Europe, where she also asked, "Do tea-growers who are not certified organic use a lot of bad stuff like fertilizer, pesticides etc?"

Before I present an answer to the question, I'd like be understood that I believe in the practice and wisdom of traditional farming not using any chemicals or genetically modified seeds or seedlings. In fact, a few personal friends are organic farmers and organic certification agents. However, this does not mean I am supportive of the organic certification movement that is its current state. Much less for tea. Answering this question with facts and a gestalt view will not make me more popular, but I have to write from my heart, so here we go.

Maximum Residual Levels for Produce

Something to relax you first: the EU has the world's most stringent requirements on the level of chemical residual contents (Maximum Residual Levels — MRLs, normally in units of decimals of mg/kg) in food products(1). In order for a tea to pass this standard to import to Europe(2), the leaves are examined the same way as a leafy vegetable. That is to say, if the tea passes the test, it is as safe as a vegetable to eat. Well, almost, the absolute values of MRLs of some of the contents are a tiny bit more relaxed in tea. Read the data in the attached link to find out, but consider this: the weight of tealeaves is without water but that of the veggie is, and that a person wouldn't normally eat 50 grams of dried tealeaves for a salad. Then you'll probably agree with me that the requirements for tea is actually a lot more strict than even fruits and veggie.

That is for tea without the organic certification.

Not all certified organic produce are residue free

Not all certified organic produce are residue free.(3) In fact, 20% of them aren't(4). The environment is filled with all sorts of chemicals that may come into contact with the produce in one phase or the other, and some producers may not follow strictly the organic management process, and the certification standard varies dramatically from one country to another, one agent to another. That 20% is not even counting those labels that say organic but without a proper certification, or with one from an unreliable agent.

Well, that does not mean we should relent in the efforts for minimizing contamination to our environment and our bodies. Is organic certification the only way to do it? Let's look at what certifying a product as "organic" really means and what reality is.

chicken running around in tea garden
Ants, bugs, worms, peats, weeds, and other plants form a micro-ecology with the dominating tea bushes… chickens wonder through such "free-range" tea bushes. This is traditional farming, not necessarily "organic". More in the next page

Organic farming vs Industrialization of agriculture

In the beginning, that was the 1960's, some small farmers felt that it was time to abandon the extensive use of chemicals in agriculture so they promote traditional and/or natural ways of production and productivity management. That was at the height of industrialization of agriculture in the West, when huge landmasses were converted into deserts of a single plant each, when pesticides and fertilizers were sprayed from aeroplanes. Smaller farms were threatened of their existence. The idea of organic farm products was a trust between some of these farmers and the consumers in pockets of communities in Europe and North America. They had faith in traditional practices. All the while, however, many more small farmers in under-developed countries had used no other ways than the traditional ones. That was until the practice of using chemicals spread from large agricultural companies in the West to the East, from large farms to small farms.

What traditional farming was like

On this note, I have some personal experience to share. When I was a young teenager going to visit my parents' ancestral villages in Mainland China in the 1970's, one most unforgettable sight was the communal septic pool that is one patch of land amongst the crisscrosses of all other tiny fields of various produce. My relatives explained to me how human waste should be thoroughly fermented and diluted before use as fertilizer, especially for the vegetables. The only thing concerned me most at that time was how everybody passing the narrow mud paths around the pool not afraid of accidentally falling into it. And how they put up with the smell even though these big square holes in the ground were on the far side of the village.

Another great thing was emptying the fish pond to spade the soil on the pond bed for use as replenishment in paddy fields. All the men and some women worked through the night, most with their bare feet sunk in the brightly brown, half-dried, clay-like, evenly flat and cracked surface, spottily lit by big kerosene lamps dangling on bamboo poles. I wouldn't want to step in there, imagining the squishy feeling between the toes, where the fish used to swim above and defecate upon. continues on next page»


1. In the EU Pesticide database <http://ec.europa.eu/sanco_pesticides/public/index.cfm>, click on the <products> button and then select the product you want to find out the MRLs of.

2. However, it is important to point out that not all teas imported to Europe are tested. Not all tested teas are tested against the EU standard, and not all test results are genuine. It is also important to point out that a EU standard test costs €250 to €300 for each batch of tea. It is prohibitively expensive for a small importer buying 20 kilo of a rare teas, but is a negligible cost to a tea exporter mechanically producing 20 tons of the same tea. 

3. Bundesverband Naturkost Naturwaren (The Organic Food and Products Association, Germany), BNN Orientation Value for Synthetic Chemical Plant Protective Agents, Pesticides, and Preservatives, August 2, 2006

4. Ming Lo et al, Results of routine testing of organic food for agro- chemical residues, as quoted in UK Organic Research 2002: Proceedings of the COR Conference, 26- 28th March 2002, Aberystwyth, pp. 61-64.

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