A Cup of Destruction

by Narendra Khot, founding member of Suhasta

Tea happens to be the second most consumed drink on Earth. Globally, about 7 billion kgs (or 7 million tons) of Tea is consumed every year. Statistically it means that every person on Earth consumes one kg of tea every year. India is the second largest producer of Tea – about 29% of global production comes from India. India consumes more than 80% of its production (1.1 million tons in 2021), while the rest is exported.

Historically, tea has been known and consumed for millennia in Asia and then the Far East. Eventually, it became hugely popular in distant lands too. The tea trade became a big thing over the years, and continues to be so today. Despite its Asian origin, the industrial style scaling up and management of tea production was started by the British in the early 19th century. Along with the other ‘plantation’ crops such as tobacco, sugar cane, cotton, indigo and coffee, the British started tea plantation on a seriously large scale in the Indian empire.

Water, as we will all agree, is the most consumed drink on Earth.

The North Eastern states, parts of the Nilgiri range and large tracts in the Sri Lankan hills have been the centers of tea cultivation and processing for almost two hundred years now. It forms 70% of Sri Lanka’s agri export and is the mainstay of the economies of all these regions. Like everything that gains economic significance, consumption of Tea also has a huge ecological impact. Tea is grown in monoculture plantations ranging from hundreds to thousands of hectares. It is typically grown in hilly regions with heavy rainfall.

Destruction of Biodiversity, extinction of endemic species, breakdown of local ecological systems – The process would obviously begin with complete deforestation of the hills. This entails clearing of the original virgin forest cover, which in turn means complete destruction of the local bio-diversity of flora and fauna. Countless endemic species are lost forever, much before the first cup of tea is ready to serve. Agricultural model based on monoculture and heavy use of chemical inputs – Tea shrubs are planted densely over vast stretches of hilly land. Nothing else is allowed to grow. Since only the leaves matter, there is widespread and heavy use of fertilizers that boost vegetative growth. Due to heavy rainfall, a lot of this fertilizer gets leached into ground water reserves and enters the human water consumption
cycle. The public health impact of nitrogen poisoning (e.g Punjab) is well known.

Socio-economic disparity due to concentration of ownership and centralization of resources – Tea grown for commercial sale needs to undergo considerable sorting, grading and processing before it is ready for the market. Growing and selling their own brand of tea is therefore not feasible for smallholders. All this must be necessarily done at factories, which are situated within or owned by large plantations. All resources and means of production are therefore concentrated in the hands of a miniscule number of large plantation owners and corporations. The vast majority of local people continue to work as laborers, since tea cultivation, harvesting and processing is still a very manual process.

Lastly, Tea contains caffeine, known to be addictive. Desperate Tea drinkers unable to control their urge for tea is a common sight.

In the most-popular-beverage race, closely behind Tea, is Coffee. While tea is brewed from leaves, coffee is brewed from the ground powder of berry seeds. A native of North Africa, popularized initially by Arab traders, Coffee began to be cultivated as a plantation crop at the behest of the industrious
European colonial powers. It is today a huge global industry.

Like Tea, Coffee is also cultivated in India after clearing large tracts of hill slopes in high rainfall regions. The loss of biodiversity, loss of habitat and local and endemic flora & fauna, is therefore as disastrous as that of Tea.

A small saving grace is the established manner of growing coffee. Since it is a shade loving shrub, it is necessary to maintain a primary plantation always. This consists of large Spice trees, Silver Oak, other trees like Areca nut, Indian Fig, some varieties of citrus fruits adapted to high rainfall regions, even Sapota (chikoo) and so on. Coffee is planted in the shade of these trees. Pepper vines are then allowed to climb on the primary plantation trees. This makes the coffee plantation model slightly more diverse, though many of these trees are likely to be exotic or non-natives. It may also impart more commercial resilience to the business model. Ecologically, it will help maintain a sparse canopy of sorts that protects the soil from erosion due to the lashing monsoons.

Economically, it is very similar to all the other plantation crops, as the model is based on concentration of resources and processing infrastructure in the hands of a privileged few. The vast majority of local populace is trapped in a self-fulfilling cycle of poverty. Small farmers can grow coffee and sell it on their own – but they will simply not have the volumes nor the branding, marketing and selling expertise to compete with global giants operating in the coffee business.

Plantation cropping is highly labor intensive – mechanization is slow and has its limitations. Economies of scale necessitate operations over large sized plantations, making it a very capital-intensive business too. This creates a structure of a few plantation owners and large number of local villagers working as laborers. The availability of such large numbers of people willing to work long and hard physically becomes a crucial dependency for all plantations. If for example, the local people were to get better education and skills and find alternate sources of employment, the plantation business will come under severe stress. This process has already begun.

The second ingredient of tea or coffee – the way it is consumed in erstwhile British colonies – is milk. Milk has even longer historical antecedents – it has been a part of human diet since humans domesticated grazing animals hundreds of thousands of years ago.

In the last few decades however, the consumption of milk and its various processed forms has assumed mind-boggling proportions. Strangely, this consumption seems to be supply-driven rather than driven by any real demand from consumers. A strong indicator of this phenomenon is the advertising and marketing spend related to milk and milk products worldwide. Goods and services which are scarce or genuine ‘survival needs’ do not require advertising. Apart from the supply surplus, force multipliers such as potent advertising and marketing, technologies of refrigeration, transportation, preservation, processing and highly developed markets are leading to massive rise in consumption.

A closer look at this milk-is-good-for-health syndrome leads us to some startling revelations…

Milk is the fluid produced in bodies of female mammals in the post-childbirth phase, meant exclusively for nourishing their own infants through the very early stages of their growth. That is the natural purpose of milk. At some time in the very early phase of human civilization, humans realized that the milk of bovines and other domestic herbivores could be used to sustain human infants, perhaps necessitated in cases where the human mother died while giving birth, or was unable to produce milk due to illness etc. It could have been an emergency resource, at best. In that case, we seem to have lost sight of some fundamental facts over the millennia…

a. No other mammal drinks the milk of another species.
b. No other mammal drinks even their own mother’s milk throughout their lives – as soon as the young one is capable of finding and consuming its natural food, the mother weans it, by instinct.
c. In nature, one mother typically feeds her young ones. Mixing of milk from various mothers is unlikely.

As is our habit, we have taken this simple discovery of a convenience and scaled it up into a gargantuan industry. Milk is now produced in either of two industrial models – it is produced in industrial dairy complexes which house thousands of captive milch animals (Corporate model), or it is collected from millions of small farmers and cattle owners, aggregated and treated and then distributed to millions of consumers (Cooperative model).

Both these models have assumed tremendous significance in the economy, therefore a closer look at their ecological and socio-economic impacts becomes necessary.

Extreme cruelty – The Corporate (Industrial) Dairy model is essentially a modern factory complex, where the cattle are mere components of a larger production system. The cattle are packed together with barely enough space to stand, attached to milking machines, fed at one end and milked at the other. They simply serve as machines to convert fodder into milk. The moment the milk production drops, the cow is artificially impregnated at the earliest. If she is past the optimum milk yielding age, she is sent off to the meat factory and replaced. Practically all male offspring are slaughtered.

All those opposed to cow slaughter, please note that there cannot be a milk industry without a Beef industry. The Beef industry is the pillar on which the Milk industry is supported. To put it bluntly, thank a beef eater for every cup of milk you have…they keep the business economically viable.

Synthetic drugs introduced into the human food chain – Thousands of animals living in close proximity is a sure recipe for disease. These animals are therefore constantly checked and monitored and pumped with antibiotics and other drugs to keep them free of infection.

The milk that finally reaches the consumer in branded pouches or packs today, is unlikely to have any nutritional value that a mother’s milk has for her infant. Why is that so?

Firstly, it is a mixture of milk produced in bodies of thousands of different individuals with different age, health and metabolism. There is no possibility of unique benefits of milk from known individual animals. This ‘milk’ now is an aggregate substance.

Secondly, all the animals in the factory are stall-fed with factory made cattle feed. The nutritive properties imparted to milk of animals that grazed the hill sides or grassy plains while choosing their fodder by instinct and natural wisdom are now lost.

Third, the ‘milk’ aggregate is further broken down in the factory process, to remove components such as fat, that will be used to make other products. The original composition of milk is lost.

Fourth, the ‘milk’ is industrially treated to withstand significant handling and transportation and machine packing. This entails adding preservatives and chemicals to ensure that it does not split or spoil during the long journey by tankers to the market cities or distribution points.

Fifth, the process of pasteurization destroys all beneficial bacteria, thereby reducing the substance to something very unlike real milk. The product now is more artificial than natural, bearing only a physical semblance to the original concept of milk.

Unfortunately, this travesty does not end here. Adulteration in milk is an age-old fact of life for us. And we are not even discussing Synthetic milk made using Urea, detergents and hydrogenated fats… The Cooperative model consists of thousands of individual small farmers keeping a few heads of cattle, grazing them in the wild and delivering milk to local collection centers in each small village. The collection vans go around twice a day, collating the milk and delivering it to the larger centers with refrigeration facilities. Once the milk is centrally collected, the rest of the process is similar to the corporate model, because the cooperative and the corporate are both competing in the same market for the same customer.

Despite the fact that these animals are more likely to be open-grazed than stall fed, the milk is eventually mixed, aggregated and treated – thus losing the nutritive value etc. The act of grazing itself has now become extremely destructive for a number of reasons. Due to the pressures of increasing populations, the traditional grazing pastures have been converted to farms and grazing is now carried out on hills. To ensure adequate supply of grass, the tree cover on hill sides has to be destroyed and the hills denuded, since grass will not grow in the shade of larger trees. And to prevent forests from being regenerated during the rains due to natural seeding (by wind, water, birds, animals etc) every summer, villagers set fire to the residual grass and other vegetation in the hills. This is an annual phenomenon in the Himalayan foothills, Sahyadris and all major and minor hills across the country.

The villagers have also learnt that once the residual dried grass is burnt, the ash that falls to the earth works as a fertilizer and leads to vigorous growth of grass in the next monsoon. This insight has further reinforced their belief in the ritual of setting off forest fires and burning down all vegetation on the hill slopes every year. Hence the commercial interest, indeed the survival of millions of small landholders in the hills has today become dependent on the annual destruction of natural vegetation on the slopes. It will therefore not be far from the truth to say that large-scale milk production is having a similar environmental impact as tea production on the hilly regions across the country.

The last ingredient of Tea, as enjoyed in the subcontinent, is Sugar.

All sugar consumed in India is made from sugar cane. Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra are the largest sugarcane and Sugar producer states in the country.

Impact on water use – Sugarcane has been traditionally grown using flood irrigation, which is a highly wasteful and inefficient method of irrigation. In Maharashtra, 4% of farmers cultivate sugarcane on 6% of total arable land and consume 76% of water resources

Refined sugar has a large water footprint – it has been estimated that 3500 liters of potable water is consumed to produce one kilogram of Sugar. This includes all water used from cultivation of sugarcane to the final manufacturing in the factory.

Socio-economic costs – Widespread Sugarcane cultivation has come at very high socio-economic costs as well. The most damaging impact has been on farmer skills. Shifting away from multi-cropping of diverse seasonal food crops towards repetitive monoculture of sugar cane has meant a complete de-skilling of farmers. In just two generations, farmers have become completely dependent on the markets for their own needs. They have lost the skills and knowledge that had been carefully accumulated and passed on over generations till a few decades ago. Sugar factories have become hotbeds of political activity, sugarcane farmers are mere contract suppliers of raw material and hundreds of thousands of farmers and workers from rainfed, non-sugarcane areas now migrate every year as contract laborers to cut sugarcane from farms. Every year the prices of sugarcane purchase are negotiated with nominal increases. Most farmers now grow sugarcane because they do not know any other alternative. Many will openly admit that they are now trapped.

Public health – In nature, no other animal eats refined sugars. Our bodies are designed to break down all starches – whether from fruit, tubers, leaves or grains – to glucose and then burn it as fuel for energy. The impact of refined sugar consumption on human health is well known and documented, ranging from Calcium depletion to blood sugar imbalance. Unfortunately, tea drinkers automatically stand to consume much more refined sugar – save the miniscule number of tea drinkers who do not use sugar.

Neither Tea, Milk nor Sugar are essential for survival or maintenance of good health. As a matter of fact, their adverse impacts are well known. Apart from the impact on human health, all three have very destructive long-term impact on ecosystems. Destroying hill side forest cover directly contributes to global warming and climate change. It results in erosion of staggering amounts of precious soil. Extinction of endemic species and loss of biodiversity are all serious impacts. Milk consumed by urban people today is practically a factory- made substance which looks like milk but has none of the properties that we assume it to have. There is no nutritional argument to be made in favor of refined sugars, whereas there are numerous known ill effects.

Commercially, all three are in the realm of Big Business, which makes them powerful forces in their own right. All three are therefore politically significant influencers too.

Consider this – All of these three are mere cultural indulgences, none are essential survival needs, which means no one would actually starve to death for want of any of them. Let’s imagine for a moment the impact on the environment, if all this land is restored to its natural ecological state. It is now up to us citizens to ponder upon these facts and decide whether that cup of tea is takes priority over human health and environmental sustainability.