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Brewing a Tasty, Sustainable Future for Tea

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. Global consumption of tea jumped 60% between 1993 and 2010 and we now drink more than 3 billion cups a day. As consumers around the world get a taste for different types of tea, consumption is set to continue to rise, particularly in Asian markets.

'We haven't had any tea for a week; the bottom is out of the universe' - Rudyard Kipling

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. Global consumption of tea jumped 60% between 1993 and 2010 and we now drink more than 3 billion cups a day. As consumers around the world get a taste for different types of tea, consumption is set to continue to rise, particularly in Asian markets.

A great time then to be in the tea trade? Well, not quite. No matter how much we love our tea, our deep-rooted desire for a cuppa will not safeguard its future. As with many other global commodities, the tea sector faces some real challenges which may, in the end, pose a real threat to future supply - and will almost certainly mean that we will be paying more for our favourite brew in the future.

From changing land use patterns driven by the need to feed a growing population - in Sri Lanka, for example, one tenth of the total area used for tea cultivation was converted to crops such as palm oil and fruit between 2005 and 2010 - to the climate change-induced weather extremes that are due to hit hardest in many tea producing regions, there are trends in play that spell bad news for global tea production.

There is also the growing trend of 'rural depopulation' - the migration of agricultural workers to the city in search of higher wages and better living. Tea production for many just isn't an attractive career option. And for those with no choice but to stay working on the plantations, conditions can be tough.

Alongside increased demand for tea, particularly in domestic markets such as China and India, tea could become a real victim of that classic sustainability funnel: increased demand versus decreased availability. And this funnel has only one impact on the prices we pay. They go up.

These challenges faced by the global tea sector are too big for one organisation to tackle alone. That's why the tea industry was one of the first to establish collaborative groups, such as The Ethical Tea Partnership. The tea industry is not new to sustainability. However, through conversations with some of our long standing partners, notably Unilever and Finlays, it became clear to us at Forum for the Future that whilst there had been some excellent sustainability work in the sector, there wasn't a shared understanding of what the sector needed to do, together, to deal with the full range of complex sustainability issues it faces. It also became clear that the challenges faced by the tea sector are systemic in nature - they are complex and interrelated - with no single answer.

Enter Tea 2030, a project managed by Forum for the Future, bringing together leading organisations across the tea sector to collaborate and help create a more sustainable future for tea. The last 18 months have seen Forum working closely with the Tea 2030 steering group, which includes brands such as Unilever, Tata Global Beverages, Twinings and Yorkshire Tea, producers like Finlays, certifiers in the shape of the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, and industry partnerships including the Ethical Tea Partnership, IDH - the Sustainable Trade Initiative, and a big US player, S&D Coffee and Tea.

This week we launched our first report, 'The Future of Tea - A Hero Crop for 2030', where we look into the future and examine how some of the complex trends might play out in terms of the impact on tea production and consumption. As with many of our futures projects, we use scenarios to understand what the world might look like for tea in 2030. Exploration of these scenarios tells us that a sustainable future for tea is definitely do-able, but will require the industry to work together and focus on some very specific challenges.

Within the report we are launching three collaboration platforms to do exactly that. The first focuses on engaging tea drinkers, creating more demand for sustainable tea globally, and addressing those pesky in-use phase impacts (tea bag waste, for example). Then there is a platform investigating how we might develop more sustainable market mechanisms which will benefit growers, often in the poorest parts of the world, more directly. The third platform will look at producer-led sustainable landscapes, helping producers tackle the most significant environmental and social issues at production level, which will vary from region to region.

Tea 2030 isn't just about delivering a sustainable value chain for the global tea industry. Whilst that would be an amazing and welcome outcome in its own right, at Forum we hope that Tea 2030 will show how an industry can tackle systemic challenges and deliver significant change, with lessons that are transferable to other parts of the global food system, which as we know, is a system under threat.

The fact that we are establishing three collaboration platforms which will be supported by a wide range of organisations in the sector, is the first clue to what might be needed elsewhere in the food system; system innovation - a set of interventions that work together to create significant change. There isn't a single solution that will secure the future for tea, and there isn't one organisation on its own that can pull off that feat either.

Looking to the future, understanding how complex trends could interact, generating a shared understanding of these possible futures, using those insights to identify areas on which to collaborate today, which add value, and don't detract from existing initiatives, and putting aside organisational priorities to find common ground, are all actions that any sector serious about securing its future should consider.

The global tea sector is doing just this. And so, Mr Kipling, we can be now hopeful that the bottom will not fall out of our universe, and that millions of people around the world will enjoy their tea long into the future.

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