Do you know where your tea comes from?

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of postings by students in a graduate seminar on food justice at the University of New Orleans. You can read more about the class and find the syllabus here. The class is part of a new PhD program in Justice Studies at UNO.

Ben Posner, MAT, MBA

Some mornings a cup of English Breakfast.

Some afternoons a cup of Earl Grey.

Most evenings a cup of SleepyTime®.

And as a good Southern boy, usually a cup or five of iced tea.

And I’m not alone in my habits. According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc., on any given day, more than half of the population of the US drinks tea. If you are one of these tea drinkers, have you ever taken a moment to think about where your tea comes from?

As a part of my class in Food Justice, taught by FoodAnthropology’s editor, Dr. David Beriss, we read a book that helps shine a light on the workers who bring us our daily (or my case, many) cups of tea. Sarah Besky’s The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India explores the hidden story of where our daily fix of caffeine may come from. Besky, currently a professor at the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell, writes about her first-hand experiences working with and interviewing the people who bring us our tea. And her revelations may shock you. 

Tea is the original colonial drink, brought to Britain during the time of Indian occupation, and tea was a source of protest here in the United States, when the colonies boldly protested by dumping tea into the Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. The Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and British empires of the mid-second millennium of the common era can be viewed as drug empires: opium, tobacco, coffee, tea, and sugar were among the most traded products. These commodities are still important to the global economy of today. However, in looking at them with our current moral and ethical standards, we see that changes can be made to improve the lives of the peasants who bring us our fix; improving the lives of those on the Darjeeling tea plantations might be a good place to start.

Current tea consumption, with varieties like English Breakfast or Earl Grey, is based on taste and not geography. A cup of Russian Caravan may be made with leaves from a few different countries, such as India, Cambodia, or Bangladesh.  But Darjeeling tea is different, and this is where Besky’s book takes us: to Darjeeling. Darjeeling, a town in the state of West Bengal (situated in the north of India, between Nepal and Bhutan), sits high in the Himalayan mountains and is dominated by tea plantations. In order for a tea to be designated as Darjeeling, it must come from one of these plantations, as Darjeeling tea, like Roquefort cheese or Champagne, is protected by a Geographic Indication (GI). The shepherds who raise the sheep whose milk makes Roquefort cheese and the vintners who grow Champagne’s grapes own their land and their charges, but the Darjeeling tea is grown on plantations, where the workers do not own anything.

While the term plantation may be jarring for American readers, it is important to note the similarities between the American and Indian plantations: while workers in the fields are paid for their services, due to the high altitude and need to import all food, these nominal fees are barely enough to cover food expenses. This keeps these workers in a state of perpetual food insecurity. Working on the plantation is also hereditary, as homes, which are rented from plantation owners, are typically the only asset available to workers and are passed down from generation to generation, leaving workers and their descendants to stay on the plantation. Finally, much like their American counterparts, tea planation workers in India are closely monitored and work exceptionally long hours. These conditions allowed our class to explore the plight of these peasants through the lens of food justice with a few different concepts we’ve studied: food sovereignty and fair trade

Founded in 1993, La Via Campesina is “an international movement bringing together millions of peasants, small and medium size farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world.” La Via Campesina has long prioritized their concept of food sovereignty, which they envision on their website as

The right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It develops a model of small scale sustainable production benefiting communities and their environment. Food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption, giving a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control its production (2021).

As these workers do not grow their own food, and indeed all Darjeeling tea is grown for export, we understand that the plantations are a place where food sovereignty should be introduced and respected. Peasants working on these farms should be allowed to grow their own food, as this will allow them to save their earnings for other expenses, which will improve the economic conditions of West Bengal.

Another aspect of food sovereignty that should be explored is the independence movement currently taking place in the West Bengal region of India. Darjeeling especially feels unrepresented by the current government, as most of the population there speaks Nepali and is more closely aligned with the Gorkha people in Nepal. Those in the Gorkhaland movement contend that money earned from the tea sold does not travel back up the mountain to Darjeeling, keeping those who work there near poverty. Food sovereignty is not the same as statehood, and the state may not always be the best sovereign in the concept of food sovereignty. However, as the Gorkhaland movement’s goals align closely with the peasants of the tea plantation, this independence movement may be something that would allow for more food sovereignty as well.  

Fair trade is another food justice concept worth exploring when speaking of the tea plantations. Fair Trade USA, founded because of our other main source of caffeine, coffee, has a mission of “building an innovative model of responsible business, conscious consumerism, and shared value to eliminate poverty and enable sustainable development for farmers, workers, their families, and their communities around the world.” Based on this definition, it may shock you to learn that some plantations in Darjeeling have been listed as fair trade by Fair Trade USA. This certification enables consumers to choose products which are more socially conscious and have been sold throughout the United States since Fair Trade USA was founded. However, a separate group, Equal Exchange, broke away from Fair Trade USA after their decision to certify some plantations as fair trade. As with food sovereignty, we can see that room for improvement exists when speaking of fair trade.

The Darjeeling Distinction has caused me to rethink my tea consumption. As working conditions are of great importance to me, gone are the boxes of Twinings and Celestial Seasons, replaced with Equal Exchange teas, since Fair Trade USA teas are still grown using the plantation system. And since the Geographic Indication seems to protect the corporate owners and not the workers, gone is Darjeeling tea from my tea box. Hopefully the workers in the Gorkhaland region of India are soon able to grow their own foods, and supply some sense of food sovereignty for themselves and their children. I think that tea workers deserve better than what is being offered on the plantations of Darjeeling, and I hope I may have convinced you of the same.   

2 Comments

  1. Very interesting. I love tea but, my true love is coffee. I was in the coffeehouse business for over 13 years. I did learn a lot about tea, especially when I worked for a local company called Coffee People. We sold lots of tea-loose and in bags. I remember when Tazo Tea was a local Portland company. I love their Wild Sweet Orange herbal (tissue) tea. My favorite black teas are Darjeeling, Keemun, and Earl Grey, which I believe is made with Keemun (China Black).

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