By Clare Leschin-Hoar
Whether it’s a farmer’s crops or our own skin, bug bites are something few of us seek out or covet. But the nibble of a green leafhopper is the secret to the sweet flavor and honeyed aroma of an oolong tea known as Oriental Beauty. The bug’s bite sparks a chemical response in the plant, enhancing flavors that delight tea drinkers.
The leafhopper is considered a pest by many plantations, but certain farms in Taiwan and China now encourage the insects, because growers have figured out that there’s a useful—and economic—upside to letting them dine a little. “But you want just the right amount of predation,” says Sean Cash, an associate professor at the Friedman School.
As any farmer can tell you, getting precisely the right balance of beneficial insects can be tricky. Changes in pests—too many, too few, too early, too late, the wrong ones—is just one of the areas being studied by a global, interdisciplinary team led by Tufts University researchers, who are in the midst of a four-year project examining the impact climate change has on Chinese tea production.
Biologists, chemists, economists and a host of other researchers are studying the breadth of climate impacts—everything from tea quality to consumer behavior to how farmers are adapting—and looking for methods to help mitigate risk to farmers’ livelihoods. The project collaborators include researchers from Boston University, the University of Florida and the Tea Research Institute in Hangzhou, China.
“Many researchers are already looking at crop yields and how we can feed the world’s population,” says Cash. “This project is different, because we’re looking at the quality of the product—not just how much tea is being produced, but how good is it.”