Devastated!!! (aka pesticides and puerh tea in 2015)

We left Xishuangbanna quietly confident.  We’d found a number of candidates, some of the best maocha samples we thought we’d found since we’ve been making tea.  We tasted them and they were lovely.  Feeling no real need to, but just seeking confirmation, we sent the first two off to the lab to be tested for agrochemicals.  Today, we heard back.  They both had pesticide residues.

Puerh tea farmer with pesticide can, coming home from work

Puerh tea farmer with pesticide can, coming home from work

Travelling in China wreaks havoc on our tastebuds.  There’s chemicals in everything and they seem to sneak MSG into every other dish at restaurants, even if asked not to.  We didn’t taste the chemicals in these teas and, believe me, we were trying.  This kind of leaves me at a loss.  We bought 1 kg of each of these teas, so I’ll look forward to retasting them once back on home ground & I guess we’ll have some nice teas for a 2015 pesticide tasting set!!!  I’m still curious if we’ll be able to taste it at all, or whether this pesticide can evade our senses.

For those interested, both samples showed up with less than 0.03mg/kg of Cypermethrin, a toxin often used as an insecticide in agriculture, and in household ant and cockroach killer.

The EU Maximum residue limit for this chemical is 0.5mg/kg, so these teas are deemed safe enough to import and sell in the EU, and indeed it’s just a trace of this chemical found.  But would you want to drink it?  I don’t think I would.  Just a quick read of the Wikipedia page and I don’t really want to sample these teas again.

So for those who tell you pesticide isn’t used on old trees.  I say nonsense.  I wonder what you’d find if you started to send a selection of high-end puerh teas off to a lab.  I think you’d probably be shocked.

I kind of despair.  It gets more and more difficult to find clean teas each year.  Now we just have to send the rest of our candidates off for their lab test and keep our fingers crossed.


  • Brian Lindburg

    It’s sad. Even if you don’t buy these teas because of the agrochemicals, the farmer knows someone else will. So turning down these teas isn’t much of a deterrent. Education would hold the most hope.

    Where I live I’m surrounded by small organic family farms. They remain organic because they care about the quality of the food they produce beyond a mere financial gain. I’d like to believe there will continue to be tea farmers in the future who feel the same way

    • essenceoftea

      I feel the same way Brian. I think all we can do is encourage farmers who are practicing natural farming. Allowing farmers to know we’re testing the teas elicits a certain level of surprise and hopefully makes them think twice about using pesticides. I am more and more of the opinion that long term steady relationships is the way to go for us, rather than seeking out completely new areas each year to keep people excited!

      • On the job joe.

        Gotta build that Guanxi! 🙂

  • Scott Reitz

    My first thought was to compare these levels with the conventional produce we (US) chomp on every day. A study I found conducted by the USDA (trust however you see fit) listed pesticide residue levels for conventional and organic produce and found that conventional produce ranged from ~0.012 to ~1.9 (spinach!) Even organic produce occasionally reported positive for residues from .01 to 1.5, though with far less frequency.

    I get it. “This has poison in it” is hardly the way to welcome someone to your table, but to toss beautiful tea in the garbage before you sit down and eat green beans that apparently contain ten times the amount seems foolish. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have any of this to deal with, but sometimes I get the feeling that (at least at the parts per million level) we’re all swimming in pesticides every day.

    This is a great discussion point!

    • essenceoftea

      I agree Scott, the amount detected in this case was small, but where do you draw the line? The thing is… pesticide has been applied at some point & that’s not very appealing to me. At home I try to eat organic food as much as possible & when eating in other places I accept that it’s not going to be organic, but I don’t go out to eat every day. I do however drink tea every day & would prefer that there’s not pesticide resides in my tea.

      The world we live in is contaminated, but it is still possible to find teas that don’t have agrochemical residues. For us, since we decided to test and publish the results, we set the limit at 0. It makes finding tea much harder, but in the end I rest easier.

      • Scott Reitz

        It’s certainly a selling point I’m excited to take advantage of… as soon as my teapot comes in stock!

      • Nick H

        Sorry to hear that. So how is the situation overall for produce in Malaysia, then?

        • essenceoftea

          It’s not so bad Nick. There are a lot of organic shops and even restaurants. I think perhaps as a result of huge agrochemical use in south east Asia, many people in Malaysia are really quite concerned about this & it has given rise to an abundance of organic produce.

    • TwoDog2

      I agree. Everyone has a different tolerance for what they feel is acceptable, but in my mind, being well under the EU safety standards is pretty good. I wish that I had that much confidence in the organic vegetables from the store or the water I drink everyday. Dangerous trace chemicals are unfortunate, but they are a reality of modern life.

      • essenceoftea

        If it was always just minute traces, it wouldn’t be so bad. One sample we sent to lab test just came back with pesticide residues at 10 times the EU permitted level. It’s teas like this that reinforce in my mind the importance of testing.

  • chris sage

    I remember visiting with an organic tea famer in Taiwan and him recounting how hard it was to get his tea to a testable 0.00 because he was unable to control overspray from neighboring farms. His only solution was to work with his neighbors and teach them a better way and set up a co-op to help them get a better price for their lower organic yields.

    • essenceoftea

      Hi Chris,

      I’ve heard this from a farmer in Taiwan too… maybe even the same one! With Yunnan, it’s different. Many of these gardens are in quite remote locations. I don’t always buy that it’s contamination from neighbouring gardens. Perhaps in some cases this is possible, but more often than not, I’d put my money on them either blending in some plantation tea, or that they’ve felt some threat from bugs and have decided to spray their old trees.

      Co-ops and villages getting together to farm organically is a great solution. I hope as the puerh market matures and there’s more awareness of this that more people come together to practice natural farming.

  • TeaSearcher

    Hey there, so my question is if you are so concerned about pesticides then do you test all of your teas before purchasing? It is easy to see that we are immersed in pollutants of all kinds, and making healthy choices is important so we can reduce exposure…however this post strikes me as alarmist and discouraging towards contemporary puerh production. Especially since some producers test every single tea cake they make, every single season.

    • essenceoftea

      Hi Tea Searcher,

      Perhaps I’m becoming a little jaded, but I do feel very discouraged towards the overwhelming majority of contemporary puerh tea production. I think pesticide use is much more widespread than most people realise & have tried to share some of our experiences in this article. Rather than being alarmist, I feel this is an honest and accurate representation of our experience with lab testing these teas.

      Subsequent to this article being published, another sample of old tree tea came back from the lab test with reported pesticide residues of ten times the EU limit.

      We don’t lab test all of the teas we stock. The testing procedure isn’t cheap. In the past couple of years, we have decided to test our new Puerh teas (last year we didn’t test the small 5kg batch of Guafengzhai tea we pressed). Rather than claiming a blanket absence of pesticide residues across all of our stock of teas, we do our best to avoid it & to offer lab tests for our own puerh teas.

      With Yancha, I know Master Huang’s thoughts on natural farming. His commercial grade products have organic certification. With the handmade old tree teas that we sell from him, the quantities aren’t large enough to warrant the certification process. I don’t have concern for them in the same way as I do puerh tea though. With Mr. Feng’s teas, I feel reasonably confident in them.

      As a producer, I feel a certain level of responsibility – this is why we decided to test our own pressings. Without testing, how can I be sure that a tea contains no pesticides, a small trace, or ten times the legal limit. Putting my head in the sand and playing Russian roulette with the health of our customers isn’t the right option to take I think.

      Are there teas in our stock that have pesticide residues. Probably. And for sure from the teas we’ve previously sold, most certainly factory teas. I’m not particularly comfortable with that, but I can either hide from it and ignore the problem or tackle it and be open and honest about what we’re trying to do to move away from that situation.

      If you’d like more certainty, I’d suggest buying the teas that we have tested.

      I hope this helps.


  • Fanale

    In today’s society it saddens me to find chemicals in virtually everything. Even organic farmers have to deal with the nonsense of chemicals trying to devastate their precious crops. We need to create a giant bio dome and all grow organically.

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