Global demand for tea increased during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Global demand for tea has seen a remarkable increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a new momentum to build a sustainable and resilient tea sector while preserving its unique character of bringing people together. This was a key takeaway from a FAO-hosted virtual high-level event to mark the International Tea Day 2021.

“Celebrating tea is celebrating peace, culture and hope,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu in his opening remarks. “Tea can play an important role in our journey to build back better. Being the most widely consumed drink in the world after water, tea brings people together to share stories and ways of life.”

Major challenges

Despite the key role tea plays in ensuring rural incomes, livelihoods and food security, the sector faces a number of challenges, the Director-General warned. He reminded the audience that tea can only be produced in narrowly defined agro-ecological conditions, and therefore, the impact of climate change and extreme weather events is one of the most pressing issues that requires urgent attention. Other major stressors for the tea sector include increasing competitiveness in the beverage sector and declining returns for small-scale farmers.  

A worker at Gitugi Tea Factory.
A worker at Gitugi Tea Factory in Kenya

In addition, global trade of tea in 2020 was affected by logistics issues and measures imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. However, increasing in-home consumption of tea more than offset declining out-of-home consumption in many instances. During the first weeks of lockdown in several countries, in-home tea sales surged, increasing by 75 percent in some consuming countries.

The Director-General reflected on the need to balance growth and sustainability at all stages of the tea value chain. To achieve this, he called for greater sustainability, through strategies for climate change adaptation and mitigation, enhanced market transparency and sustainability. He also spoke about the importance of policies for sustainable production that target smallholder growers.

Tea is a source of livelihoods

The production and processing of tea provide employment and income to millions of smallholder farmers and workers in developing countries. Smallholder tea growers are responsible for 60 percent of world tea production.

“Tea is a significant source of ingredients, incomes and inspirations and can help alleviate some of the burden resulting from the economic downturn, particularly for the rural poor,” the Director-General noted pointing to the need to improve the smallholders’ business ecosystem.

For example, in light of the current pandemic and its impact on tea trade and tea supply chains, it is crucial to adopt new business models and technologies to ensure access to markets for smallholder farmers in this new reality. 

The Director-General referred to the International Day as an excellent opportunity to renew global commitment to building an inclusive, sustainable and resilient tea sector.

Magic in a cup that protects and heals

During the event, the participants extolled the numerous health benefits that tea offers, including its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and weight loss effects.

World per capita consumption of tea increased by 3 percent over the last decade, driven by rising per capita income and population growth in developing and emerging markets.

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Tea picking

High-level participation

The observance held on 21st May 2021 brought together the world’s top tea exporting and importing countries as well as major producing countries. The participants echoed the Director-General’s call to boost sustainable tea production, address the challenges the smallholders face and untap the sector’s full potential in building back better.  

The high-level speakers included Inam Karimov, Minister for Agriculture, Azerbaijan; TANG Renjian, Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, China (via video message); Stefano Patuanelli, Minister for Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies, the Republic of Italy (via video message); Hamadi Boga, Principal Secretary for Crops Development and Agricultural Research, Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, the Republic of Kenya; Maneesh Gobin, Attorney General, Minister for Agro-Industry and Food Security, Mauritius; Anup Wadhawan, Commerce Secretary, India; Shabnam Weber, President, Tea and Herbal Association, Canada.

Closing the high-level segment, FAO Chief Economist Máximo Torero Cullen stressed that tea lies at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development contributing to such objectives as ending poverty, eradicating hunger, and enhancing the sustainable management and utilisation of natural resources. He re-affirmed FAO’s continuous support and commitment to working with all partners for a better future for the tea sector “from field to cup”.

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