It’s a Question of Taste

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Prolonged dry weather over several decades could change the essential dynamics of the Assam tea industry, reports Teresa Rehman

Troubled pickings Assam produces more than half of India’s tea output (above); the Tocklai reseach centre (below)
Troubled pickings Assam produces more than half of India’s tea output (above); the Tocklai reseach centre (below)
Photo: Deepak Salvi

IT’S KNOWN for its strong body and flavour. But now, threatened by a long dry spell, Assam tea is facing the adverse effects of climate change. An official at the Regional Meteorological Centre in Guwahati says that the region has been rain deficient through the last decade. In fact, in its National Action Plan on Climate Change, the central government has observed a warming trend in the north-east that is linked to overall global warming.

Now, scientists at Tocklai Experimental Station, the world’s oldest tea research institute — based in Jorhat in Assam — have started exploring the overall impact of abiotic stress, climate change and temperature on the quality of Assam tea. Tocklai Director, Mridul Hazarika told TEHELKA that though his scientists are already working on the impact of biotic stress on the flavour of tea, research into the effects of climate change is new.

The north-east region boasts of including the world’s wettest place, but it has also witnessed one of the highest rainfall deficits in the last 30 years – in some years as much as 37 percent. Summer temperatures have shot up by almost 5 degrees centigrade on average over the last two decades. Assam produces more than 50 percent of India’s total tea output and the news is not encouraging.

As a part of the climate change observations, perceptible changes in weather parameters — different precipitation, temperature and carbon dioxide rise — have been observed by the scientists of the Tea Research Association (TRA) at Jorhat. They are based on realtime information gathered at Tocklai and other outreach stations of TRA, where elaborate systems are put up to measure meteorological parameters.

The action plan report mentions the fact that in the long term, such climatic change will have a severe impact on vegetation, both natural and cultivated. In this process of change, what could easily happen is that some of the cultivated crops may become unsuitable for certain areas and have to give way to others that require less precipitation. Tea, however, is the most important crop in this region and the economy of the entire northeast is shaped by it. “If this happens, it will definitely be distressing news and impact a lot of business,” says Dolly Roy, a tea taster based in Kolkata.

Global warming could affect the very taste of Assam’s famous tea. The rains have failed.

Hazarika explains that the prolonged dry spell may bring in some irreversible changes within the tea plant and that could affect its quality. “We are trying to identify the molecular mechanism. If possible, we will create the mechanism artificially on the leaf,” he told TEHELKA.

Efforts are on through the Assam Tea Planters Association to create awareness of such climate change among tea planters. Hazarika warns that it might not be premature to say that the productive life of tea may be reduced — replanting, therefore, may become a frequent exercise among the state’s planters. Clearly, it’s imperative that afficionados of Camellia sinensis var assamica, known as Assam tea, continue to get the strong, brisk, bright and full flavour of the cup that cheers.

WRITER’S EMAIL
rteresa@rediffmail.com

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