"Our country's tea industry is big, but not strong," lamented Tang Ke, the Director of the Market Economy and Information Department at the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, in an interview with agricultural news portal 1Nongjing. "There are lots of reasons for this, but one of the important ones is that we lack a strong brand."
He goes on to explain that although China exports a lot of tea leaves, "because our brands are weak, the export price is low."
In country whose economy embodies the concept of rapid development, China's tea industry stands out as the lethargic player, lagging behind the food safety standards set by the rest of the world said Greenpeace.
Chinese tea companies produced more than 2.4 million tons of tea leaves in 2016, amounting to over 40 percent of the world's total output. However according to 1Nongjing, because the plantations nestled in the rolling hills by the Yangtze River and the verdant mountains of the Southwest are small and labor intensive, they are only 40 percent as efficient as tea farms in India.
Most provincial tea plantations also lack the expertise to process—and add value to—their product; in fact, only six percent of tea plantations create a finished product. It is thought that more than half of China's estimated 66,000 tea producers export tea as a raw product, and more than 90 percent of tea plantations make less than 5 million yuan a year ($73,500).
Tang's assessment rings true: "Big, but not strong."
Voices agreeing with Tang echo from every corner of the industry. Hu Guoxiong, the incumbent West Lake Longjing Tea Master Roaster from Hangzhou's famous tea terraces, told 1Nongjing, "We need to establish brands…to take Chinese tea's traditional culture, its history, and incorporate it with cups of tea across the world."
But the tea leaves are starting to spell out a different future. In January of this year, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a scheme to "improve the efficiency and competitiveness" of Chinese agriculture. This policy, known as "2017: Year of Agricultural Brands Promotion," promises "deep supply-side structural reform" according to China Daily.
The plan focuses on two areas in particular: improving the quality of tea products, and establishing brands and marketing strategies that can help the "large crowd of small Chinese brands" compete with "Western giants," Dang Guoying, a researcher with the Rural Development Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Daily.
The ministry's approach seems to be working. To ensure the zero increase in the use of chemical products, the scheme provides all plantations that want them with free or subsided organic pesticides and fertilizers. Not only does this add value to the tea by allowing it to be exported as an organic product, but it is also protects the future of the tea industry by combating the soil acidification of plantations caused by chemical fertilizers. Local governments have also been encouraged to give rural start-ups tax benefits, financing, and insurance.
The policy outlines how larger farms can be helped, too. New courses in agricultural management, rural planning, and house design are being written up for institutions of higher learning. Recent employment drives have also encouraged university graduates and entrepreneurs to consider piloting technological and managerial innovation in rural areas. Although these benefits have yet to come to fruition, they demonstrate a longer term commitment to rural development.