GAUHATI, India – In this humid, lush region where an important part of the world's breakfast is born, the evidence of climate change is — literally — a weak tea.
Growers in tropical Assam state, India's main tea growing region, say rising temperatures have led not only to a drop in production but to subtle, unwelcome changes in the flavor of their brews.
The area in northeastern India is the source of some of the finest black and British-style teas. Assam teas are notable for their heartiness, strength and body, and are often sold as "breakfast" teas.
"Earlier, we used to get a bright, strong cup. Now it's not so," said L.P. Chaliha, a professional tea taster.
Rajib Barooah, a tea planter in Jorhat, Assam's main tea growing district, agreed that the potent taste of Assam tea has weakened.
"We are indeed concerned," he said. "Assam tea's strong flavor is its hallmark."
Tea growers want the Indian government to fund studies to examine the flavor fallout from climate change.
Assam produces nearly 55 percent of the tea crop in India, a nation that accounts for 31 percent of global tea production. But the region's tea production has dipped significantly, and plantation owners fear it will drop further as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change.
Assam produced 564,000 tons of tea in 2007, but slipped to 487,000 tons in 2009. The 2010 crop is estimated to be about 460,000 tons, said Dhiraj Kakaty, who heads the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association, an umbrella group of some 400 tea plantations.
The drop in production has squeezed consumers. Prices have gone up about 10 percent over the past year.
Mridul Hazarika, director of the Tea Research Association, one of the world's largest tea research centers, blames climate change for Assam's shortfall. He said the region's temperatures have risen 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over the last eight decades.
Scientists at the Tea Research Association are analyzing temperature statistics to determine links between temperature rise, consequent fluctuations in rainfall and their effect on tea yields.
"Days with sunshine were far fewer during the (monsoon) rains this year," Kakaty said, "leading to a shortfall in production and damp weather unfavorable for tea."
Dampness also aggravates bug attacks on the tea crop. Kakaty said a pest called the tea mosquito bug thrives in such weather and attacks fresh shoots of the tea bush. Restrictions on pesticide use because of environmental concerns have added to planters' woes.
The tea industry employs about 3 million people across India. Most live just a few steps above the poverty line.
They are not the only farmers in India suffering because of the weather. Warmer temperatures have cut sharply into wheat farmers' yield in northern India — their crops are maturing too quickly.
Nor are tea growers alone in their concern about how the climate is changing the taste of their product. French vintners, for instance, have seen the taste and alcohol content change for some wines, and are worried they could see more competition as climate change makes areas of northern Europe friendlier to wine-growing.
The U.N. science network foresees temperatures rising up to 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees F) by 2100. NASA reported earlier this month that the January-November 2010 period was the warmest globally in the 131-year record. U.N. experts say countries' current voluntary pledges on emissions cuts will not suffice to keep the temperature rise in check.
India has proposed a system for sharing technologies between rich and poor countries designed to free up funding and technologies for poor nations that need help coping with a warmer world. These projects include building barriers against rising seas, shifting crops threatened by drought, building water supply and irrigation systems, and improving health care to deal with diseases.
Industrial countries have pledged $30 billion in emergency funds through 2012 to help poor countries prepare for climate change, and promised to raise $100 billion a year starting in 2020. Developing countries say at least half of those funds should go to adaptation measures, and the other half toward helping their economies shift to low-carbon growth.
The United States has long refused to join the rest of the industrialized world in the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 adjunct to the climate treaty that mandated modest emissions reductions by richer nations. The U.S. has said it would hurt their economy and exempt emerging economies such as China and India.