A spate of poor growing conditions is souring the fortunes of tea farmers in Darjeeling – though a senior figure in the industry has cast doubt on their pain being felt in the UK.
Since 2012, worsening droughts in West Bengal – accompanied by landslides following downpours – have taken a toll on farmers across the state. Last summer, state agriculture minister Purnendu Basu acknowledged the situation was “pretty bad” after announcing that the state would compensate the farmers most affected.
For growers of Darjeeling tea, dry conditions have also led to an onslaught of pests, including tea mosquito bugs, red spider mites and blister blight, compounding the damage caused by poor weather.
As a result, average annual yields have fallen to 8,500 tonnes per year, down from roughly 10,000 tonnes per year in 2009.
But a senior figure in the UK tea industry (who wished not to be named), told Eastern Eye that the situation in Darjeeling will most likely go unnoticed by drinkers of the “champagne of teas” in Europe by the time conditions improve, which he expects to be soon.
He said: “They’re having some low production levels at the moment, and that may affect 2017, but I don’t think so.
“It’s always temporary… Look at the trouble we’re having with vegetables coming out of southern Spain at the moment, these problems, for certain manufacturers, are very temporary. They could have an outstanding spring, an outstanding summer, get the right rains, get the right distribution and they’ll make up the shortfall within a month.”
Neither are UK retailers bracing themselves for an impact. A spokesperson for Waitrose told Eastern Eye that the falling crop yields of Darjeeling tea have not affected its supplier.
The senior figure added that the larger challenge for manufacturers of Darjeeling tea will likely be fraud, as a growing amount of tea originating from Nepal is being sold as Darjeeling tea, due to its similarity with the higher grade Darjeeling tea and its higher cost.
“If Darjeeling drops in volume, it will be made up by identical tea from across the border,” he said. “The Tea Board of India has got an enormous challenge on its hands. There is about five times more Darjeeling tea consumed in the world than is actually produced.”
These counterfeit teas are absent from European markets, however, as Darjeeling tea is afforded a protected geographical indication, which prevents companies from marketing tea from outside of West Bengal as Darjeeling tea.
Despite the name recognition of Darjeeling tea, Nepali tea has already began appearing on many stores shelves, often marketed as “high-grown Himalayan tea”.
“If somebody wants a high-grown Himalayan tea, they’ll get it, and it will probably be a Nepali tea, and they’ll pay less for it than Darjeeling.”