Tea Research: Establishing a Framework for Crop Analysis

Selena Ahmed, a new faculty member in the Department of Health and Human Development at MSU, along with a team of collaborators, recently received a $931,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to research the natural and human systems associated with the production of tea.

Ahmed received her undergraduate degree in economics from Barnard College at Columbia University with a minor in biology. Her interest in economic development and her inspiring experience in an ecology course led her to pursue a master’s degree in ethno-botany in England. Ethno-botany is a field that focuses on human-environmental interactions. This gave her anthropological knowledge in addition to her economics degree. Ahmed completed her master’s thesis in Morocco and as she did fieldwork, she recognized the need for additional knowledge of ecology and biology. She continued school and pursued a Ph.D. in biology from the City University of New York and the New York Botanical Garden.

Researching tea encompasses all aspects of Ahmed’s interdisciplinary background, as it focuses largely on both the environmental and economic factors of tea production, especially the integration of humans into the environment.

Ahmed has been focusing on tea research since 2006 when she selected it as the topic for her doctoral thesis. “[My advisor and I] were actually having a cup of tea at that time,” Ahmed said of the day when she got the idea to research tea. At the time she was doing research on esoteric plant systems in the Amazon and decided instead to expand her research to tea — the most widely consumed plant beverage in the world. Her dissertation focused on how the management practices of farmers influenced the biodiversity of the tea plants and the genetics and phytochemical properties of different tea production systems: forest, agro-forest, mixed crop and monoculture. Ahmed analyzed how these properties varied based on management, genetics and ecology.

[pullquote align=”right”]“The NSF grant is really awesome because it gives us the opportunity to scale up what we’re doing.” — Selena Ahmed, faculty researcher[/pullquote]

Ahmed conducted her doctoral research in Yunnan, a southwestern region of China which is considered to be the birthplace of the tea plant. This region is also unique in that the tea that grows there is extremely genetically diverse, making the site an ideal research location. Farmers in this region shared information with Ahmed about changes in tea quality not only due to management practices but also due to changes in weather patterns. The farmers felt this was an important aspect for Ahmed to include in her tea research as it was something that has an immense impact on their livelihood.

In 2011, Ahmed began collecting preliminary data on how weather patterns affect the quality of tea. She conducted interviews with farmers to learn what management practices are effective in keeping tea crops resilient to weather variability. In collaboration with Rick Stepp, an Anthropologist from the University of Florida, and Chinese collaborators, Ahmed examined these factors and used the results to apply for the NSF grant she received.

This grant is being used to continue with and to expand upon the research of Ahmed and her collaborators: Stepp, chemical ecologist Colin Orians, agricultural economist Sean Cash, analytical chemist Albert Robbat and soil scientist Tim Griffin. This diverse group of scientists plans to use this grant to expand their research geographically and temporally.

“The NSF grant is really awesome because it gives us the opportunity to scale up what we’re doing,” said Ahmed. The research is looking to examine how the natural system and the human system interact. The natural system includes how weather variability affects the tea agro-ecosystem, which is also involved in the human system. The agro-ecosystem influences tea quality and the tea quality influences consumer perception. Consumer response directly impacts farmer livelihood and decision-making, which in turn affects the agro-ecosystem.

The research team is also doing manipulative greenhouse experiments to determine optimal conditions for tea production. As weather conditions cannot be controlled, an emphasis is put on how farmers respond to these conditions. “We are looking at what farmers can do to best make themselves more resilient, whether it’s diversifying their entire portfolio of agricultural production or whether there is particular management,” Ahmed said.

Throughout the course of the project, samples will be collected and analyzed. At the end of the project period, policy recommendations will be developed based on research results. Ahmed and her team hope to work with organizations in China to develop educational outreach about how to best manage weather variability.

Ahmed explained this research aims to eventually reach beyond the realm of tea production and hopes to apply a similar framework to look at the production of a crop in Montana. “This project about tea might seem really far removed for people in Montana,” Ahmed said. “But the goal of focusing on this crop is that if we can provide models — not just to look at tea — but basically provide a really interdisciplinary framework to look at crops that are important to people in all states and around the world.”