Unilever is taking agricultural risk into its own hands under a new partnership with a genetics research firm for a pilot project on one of its plantations in Kenya. The Anglo-Dutch company announced last week that it will begin a research and development project to create more resilient, so-called “future-proof,” tea crops using a natural breeding method known as genomic selection.
The project will pair Unilever with Nature Source Genetics, a New York-based genomics company that will sequence and analyze tea crop genomes. “The first objective of the project is to use new sequencing methods to monitor and capture, in a core collection, most of the tea diversity that exists today in natural varieties of Camellia sinensis,” Clive Gristwood, senior vice president of Unilever’s R&D Refreshment division, told TriplePundit.com via email — referring to the Latin name of the species used for black tea.
“Capturing the broadest possible tea genetic diversity is important in order to make sure that we don’t lose key genes that might help improve resistance to climate change or new tea pests in the future,” explained Gristwood.
Unilever is the world’s leading tea manufacturer and buys on average around 12 percent of global supply, which it markets worldwide under the Lipton, PG Tips and Brooke Bond brand names. The company grows about 10 percent of its annual supply from its own plantations in Tanzania and Kenya, including the Lipton tea plantation in Kericho where the genomic tea project will begin.
In Kenya, tea is big business. As of 2012, the country was the world’s leading exporter of black tea by weight, and the industry employs 600,000 smallholder farmers and an additional 150,000 plantation workers. The country also hosts one of the tea industry’s largest international auction houses in Mombasa. Unilever, through its buying agent Cargill, is that auction’s largest buyer and takes an average 25 to 30 percent of all Mombasa exports.
The second objective of the new R&D project in Kericho, according to Gristwood, is to use a process called genomic selection to grow heartier, higher-yielding plant varieties. Through genomic selection, researchers can identify traits like drought resistance and yield in individual tea strains and then cross those “parent” breeds to create a more desirable crop. The process “significantly shortens the time required for breeding and will be used to develop the all-natural future-proofed varieties of tomorrow,” said Gristwood.
Unilever spokespeople emphasized that genomic selection is not connected to the type of genetic engineering used to create controversial genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
While project partner Nature Source Genetic’s website indicates that the company sometimes works with clients to apply intellectual property (IP) rights to the fruits of their research, Gristwood told Triple Pundit that Unilever does not intend to pursue IP rights as part of this project. “Ultimately we want to work in partnership with others to secure a sustainable future for tea for everyone to benefit from,” he said.
Unilever has pledged to source all tea for its Lipton brand from Rainforest Alliance Certified estates by next year, and to have 100 percent of its tea sourced from suppliers that meet its sustainable agriculture code by 2020.
Tea prices in Kenya are currently at a six-year low, averaging $2.04 per kilogram at the end of May and down 20 percent from the same time last year. According to the the Tea Board of Kenya, national production hit a 10-year high in 2013 and the market remains at risk for oversupply this year.
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