Climate change threatens rooibos

2012-02-27 07:26

Clanwilliam - Farm workers swing their sickles through red branches, bundling them up before laying them out in the sunshine to dry.

The annual harvest at Groenkol Rooibos tea estate, in the Western Cape helps quench the world's growing thirst for "red bush" tea, but farmers fear that climate change could destroy the delicate eco-system that their crop depends on.

Annual exports of rooibos have quadrupled in the last 13 years. The tea is popular for its perceived health benefits as well as its refreshing taste and has become a trendy drink in many countries. It contains no caffeine and just a tiny amount of tannin.

But rooibos tea only grows in this region - nowhere else in the world.

"Rooibos is endemic to this area, it grows wild here and only here," said Chris Du Plessis, who runs Elandsberg Eco Tourism.

"If you go up that hill and down the other side you'll find that 90% of the plants that grow there don't grow on the other side."

Weather extremes

Very few plants can survive in the dry, sandy terrain but rooibos bushes thrive in this area, living in symbiosis with micro-organisms in the soil. Farmers have tried to grow rooibos in Australia, the US, even China - each time they've failed.

Willem Engelbrecht inherited Groenkol Rooibos Tea Estate from his father. Since taking on the farm, he's noticed distinct changes in the weather.

"Over the last 10 years, there are more and more strange things happening," said Engelbrecht.

The area already endures extreme weather conditions. The temperature drops to freezing in the winter, and reaches 48°C in the summer.

Now, summers are hotter and winters, drier. As a result, Engelbrecht has had to adapt his farming techniques.

"In the past we used to plough the soil, these days we plough less and we keep material on the soil to act as isolation, basically to preserve the moisture."

But if temperatures continue to soar, farmers like Willem will find it difficult to cope, posing risks to the R600m rooibos industry.

Climate change experts warn that the Western Cape will be hit hard over the next 100 years.


"A plausible scenario is a further three degree temperature increase over much of this region," said Francois Engelbrecht of South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

"At the same time, this region is projected to become generally drier. So the general picture that is painted for all of the Western interior and coastal regions of South Africa is indeed not a very positive one."

But those who depend on rooibos for their livelihood are trying to remain positive. The rooibos industry is booming, with the Cederberg area producing 12 000 tons of tea a year, half of which is sold for export. That's enough to make 4.8 billion cups of tea a year.

Tea production also provides an estimated 4 500 jobs to the area, with much of the harvesting and drying done by hand.

"Rooibos is now gaining ground in a lot of countries and is grown from a very small base, so I think business can grow exponentially," said Willem Engelbrecht.

The question for farmers like Engelbrecht, is how long this boom can last, before climate change kills off their crop.

  • Bluemast - 2012-02-27 08:22

    Let's hold thumbs that climate change won't end up changing to the point of this special plant becoming extinct, it wil be such a loss for many reasons, its popularity, medicinal properties, magnificent unique taste and aroma and of course job losses! - good luck to the industry espesially the fact that it cannot grow anywhere else in the world.

      RA - 2012-02-27 21:09

      yawn... death might cum visit u 2night, u really gonna worry about a certain animal or plant? few million years back there was dinosaurs, now? Nothing... mayb a million years from now there might b no rooibos, black n white, just oranges? squeeze them n make juice.

  • John - 2012-02-27 09:02

    Here comes the whole global warming debate again.... On the side line, as things heat up and become more severe... maybe more areas will become like the present growing area and they can increase their production...

  • Zion - 2012-02-27 09:24

    I just cannot adopt an affinity for the stuff. My mother forced is down our throats, my late wife done the same and my fiancée'. The stuff was served to us appies in the railway hostel mixed with other brands of weak tea and the result looked like; you know what! And tasted the same. Wait! has anyone tried to smoke it? that may be legal. May that industry emerge as one of the best in its market.

  • Alicia - 2012-02-28 09:52

    If you going to respond to this article, then it does not matter if you like Rooibos or not. After all it is an acquired taste. If you live in our beautiful country South Africa and can appreciate the gift that God has created for us and have empathy for farmers and other humans who might loose their only livelihood then add a comment. But please don’t make this article about you, think beyond yourself and open your eyes to world suffering it is happening on our doorstep.

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