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The Environmental Risks of Quenching the Demand for Rooibos

The South African redbush plant (Afrikaans: rooibos) is the primary ingredient in Rooibos tea production (Joubert & Schulz, 2006; Hawkins et al., 2011), a reddish-brown, caffeine-free herbal tea. In this article, “redbush” refers to the plant Aspalathus linearis, from which “Rooibos” tea is produced.


The redbush plant has significant economic value, with Rooibos exports, as of 2019, worth South African rand 936 million (Barends-Jones, 2020) (roughly USD 50.6 million in 2024). Although the redbush plant is considered environmentally friendly (Wynberg, 2017), its farming and cultivation are becoming difficult due to the effects of climate change (Archer et al., 2008). Since South Africa’s Western Cape is the only habitat for the plant (Morton, 1983; Erlwanger & Ibrahim, 2017), the Rooibos tea industry’s multistakeholders must collectively adapt to sustainable methods to continue the local and global supply.


Global warming and climate change, the long-term and unprecedented shift of the earth’s surface temperature and weather patterns, respectively (Hansen et al., 2006; Ring et al., 2012; Wang et al., 2023; Goebbert et al., 2012; Hashim & Hashim, 2016), are “accelerating” (Roggema, 2009, p.2), “dramatic” (Donohoe, 2007, p.44) and “far-reaching” (Scott et al., 2019, p.49) affecting socio-political, cultural, and economic determinants. Consequently, it will expose society’s ability to adapt and vulnerability to growing change (Ford & Ford, 2011, p.3).*



Figure 1: The redbush plant—Aspalathus linearis—is found exclusively in South Africa’s Western Cape (Amada44, 2014).

This article addresses how the redbush farmers of South Africa’s Western Cape are adapting to the change in weather patterns that are beginning to disrupt the cultivation, farming, and consumption of a plant “deeply rooted in the history of the region” (Malgas & Oettle, 2007). In the southernmost region of the African continent, where 70% of the population depends on agriculture (Midgley & Methner, 2016; Bekun & Akadiri, 2019), current redbush farming methods, ownership, and land management in South Africa are adapting to a future of extreme and unpredictable global weather changes (Archer et al., 2008).


The main concepts in this article are consumption and risk, showing their importance and relevance to the local Rooibos tea production and the product’s global demand.


Risk and consumption

The socioeconomic risks from climate change are transboundary (Volz et al., 2021, p.3; Terton et al., 2023) and interconnected locally and globally by shared natural resources, food and energy supplies, biodiversities, and livelihoods (Benzie et al., 2013; Davis et al., 2016; Werrell & Femia, 2016; Berninger et al., 2022).*


The term risk society emerged in the 1990s through the works of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck and his British counterpart Anthony Giddens, mainly in response to growing environmental and technological concerns.*


In his influential analysis, "Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity", Beck presented his ideas of risk society as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself” (Beck, 1992, p.21). Modernisation, in this sense, being the interaction and relationship with the new technologies transforming societies (Cohen, 1997), has created new risks very different from the old. Similarly, Giddens believes the risk society to be forward-looking, which “lives in the future rather than the past” (Giddens & Pierson, 1998, p.94).*


Figure 2: A cup containing Rooibos tea leaves (Picryl, 2016).

More “extreme” weather events are forecasted to become the norm due to climate change (Diffenbaugh et al., 2017; Ebi et al., 2021; Clarke et al., 2022), with temperature shifts, prolonged droughts, floods, and increased precipitation expected to impact global agricultural yields and the land suitable for crops (Selvaraju et al., 2011; Devot et al., 2023). Fertile agricultural land in South Africa is already limited due to poor rainfall - a region of Africa described as “land rich but water poor” (Vlek et al. 2020, quoted in Rötter et al., 2024, p. 573) - with the majority of the country’s land used only for livestock grazing and farming, the latter being “the largest agricultural sector in the country” (du Preez et al., 2019, p.116). Climate change is projected to increase competition over land use, agriculture, and natural resources across Southern Africa (Swain et al., 2011; Kapuka & Hlásny, 2021), vulnerabilities already exacerbated by poor governance (Khoza et al., 2022) and insufficient public spending on rural infrastructure (Africa Monitor, 2012; United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 2012).


Consumption behaviours are linked to food security (FReSH & WBCSD, 2018; Celik et al., 2023), a crucial global challenge that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines as “[a] situation that exists when all people, at all times have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food” (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2002, quoted in Schmidhuber & Tubiello, 2007, p.19703). Four key dimensions of this definition—availability, stability, access, and utilisation (Horn et al., 2021)—can be used to analyse the socioeconomic and cultural importance of the redbush plant for the populace of the Western Cape.


The five principal tea producers—China, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Indonesia—account for 80% of global exports (Majumber et al., 2010; Gupta, 2018). The global popularity of Rooibos has risen since the beginning of the 21st century (Rampedi & Olivier, 2008), with exports of up to more than 6,000 tonnes per annum to the biggest markets of Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Joubert & De Beer, 2011; Liu et al., 2022). Today, Rooibos accounts for roughly 10% of the international herbal tea market (Biénabe & Marie-Vivien, 2017; Wynberg, 2017).


Figure 3: The famous UK Tick Tock Rooibos tea brand began in 1903 with wild redbush (Tick Tock, 2024).

Competition in the tea market is tough with fluctuating prices and production costs (Shiferaw, 2023; Bermúdez et al., 2024). As of 2019, 67,000 hectares of South African land are calculated to be for Rooibos production (Barends-Jones, 2020). The ability of the Western Cape’s agricultural system to meet the growing global market for Rooibos may strengthen the South African tea industry’s economic viability, but this creates additional challenges for farmers to ensure consistent product quality (Waarts & Kuit, 2008; Liu et al., 2022), holistic management (Wynberg, 2017), and sustainable methods of cultivation and harvest (Leclerq, 2008).


Redbush

The South African redbush, Aspalathus linearis, belongs to the flowering plant family of the Fabaceae. The linearis part of the name refers to the shape of the needle-like leaves.


Redbush had been made into tea by the inhabitants of the Western Cape (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 2014) long before it was noted, in 1772, by the celebrated Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg (1743–1828) that “the country people made tea” using the plant (Thunberg, 1986, quoted in Gorelick, 2017). Due to its cultural significance and generational popularity, Rooibos is today considered South Africa’s national beverage (Wilson, 2005; Ives, 2014a).


Figure 4: The Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), “the father of South African botany” (Wikimedia Commons, 2020).

The two redbush types, wild and cultivated, grow in only one region: South Africa’s Western Cape (Morton, 1983; Erlwanger & Ibrahim, 2017). Specifically, the plant is located in a 20,000-km² of desert, the Suid Bokkeveld, and the adjacent mountainous Cederberg, north of Cape Town (Hansen, 2006; Leclerqc et al., 2009). The redbush has adapted to the harsh conditions of freezing winters and scorching summers (MacAlister et al., 2020; Lötter et al., 2022), and despite being subjected to severe drought, it can survive on its tap root (Smith et al., 2018). There are, however, notable differences between the two plant types (Lötter & le Maitre, 2014; Brooks et al., 2021).


Wild redbush has been harvested for domestic use for generations (Ives, 2014a), but is commercially considered inferior in quality to its cultivated counterpart (Malgas & Oettle, 2007). However, the wild plant can survive fires during the dry summer months (Wilkinson et al., 2024) by its natural survival mechanism of re-sprouting from its roots (Van der Bank et al., 1999, quoted in Hawkins et al., 2011). Cultivated plants have been grown using seeds from the wild redbush (Malgas & Oettle, 2007) and cannot survive fire.


Furthermore, the wild variety grows more slowly (Patrickson et al., 2008), but its ability to store water reserves in deep underground roots means it can survive rising temperatures (Oettle, 2012, quoted in Ives, 2014). The resilience of wild redbush became especially evident during the three-year severe drought between 2003 and 2006 in the Suid Bokkeveld (United Nations Development Programme, 2015), when the plant survived far better than its cultivated counterpart (Koelle & Oettle, 2009).


The cultivated form of redbush is sought worldwide, yet with significant changes in the Western Cape’s weather pattern, some small-scale farmers have adopted sustainable farming methods to harvest wild redbush for consumption (Le Roux et al., 2017). The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) believes that this sustainable method can be maintained by the farmer’s ability “to recognise what is happening climatically, and in the bigger contexts adapt his or her practices in a way which makes them more resilient” (IIED, 2010).


Figure 5: Brewed Rooibos tea in a glass teapot and cup (Helbig, 2010).

Farming

Growing consumer taste for herbal teas, like South African Rooibos, reflects societal trends for natural, healthier beverages (Nurmilah & Utama, 2022). However, with entire harvests in South Africa’s Western Cape at risk due to prolonged periods of drought (Oluwatayo & Braide, 2022), witnessed between 2003 and 2006 (United Nations Development Programme, 2015), there is a concern about how long the redbush farmers manage the scarce water supply in a drought-prone region (Adom & Simatele, 2022; Calverley & Walther, 2022) to fulfil the increased consumer demand and maintain healthy soil conditions (Dzikiti et al., 2022).


Rooibos has been drunk by generations of South Africans in a country where 4,500 to 5,000 tonnes are consumed annually (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 2014, quoted in Elisha & Viljoen, 2021). The tea’s purported health benefits (Rampedi & Olivier, 2008) will likely sustain national and global demand (Biénabe et al., 2009). This will continue to drive land and employment expansion around the product (Waarts & Kuit, 2008) in one of the country’s poorest regions (Nel et al., 2007). The effects of climate change (Matthews, 2022) and the increased local competition (Nel et al., 2007) are risking the sustainability of the redbush.


Agriculture in South Africa is a labour-intensive industry (World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 2010; Visser & Ferrier, 2015), with Rooibos production providing much-needed employment to roughly 5,000 workers (Amusan, 2014, p.42; Schroeder et al., 2020). Mechanisation is limited by the mountainous landscape (Leclerqc et al., 2009, p.4), so harvesting is done by hand, making the Rooibos tea industry one of South Africa’s biggest employers (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 2014).


Climate change will especially severely affect agriculture in Southern Africa, with the region experiencing more severe weather events such as droughts, heatwaves, and floods (Schmidhuber & Tubiello, 2007, p.19703; Swain et al., 2011). These new extremes have already become apparent in the Suid Bokkeveld, where, due to rising temperatures and poor rainfall, there is a history of delaying redbush planting due to unsuitable soil conditions and water shortages (Archer et al., 2008). Less rain will make farming cultivated redbush more expensive or a disaster.


Figure 6: A Rooibos farm in Clanwillam, South Africa’s Western Cape (Bruenken, 2005).

The redbush relies on winter rainfall for survival (Archer et al., 2019). The region, with its Mediterranean climate (Manzano et al., 2023), is susceptible to climate change, which will intensify the existing harsh conditions. For the farmers of the Heiveld Cooperative, a Suid Bokkeveld-based business whose members sustainably cultivate wild redbush, prolonged droughts have already resulted in yield losses between 40 and 100% (Malgas & Oettle, 2007; United Nations Development Programme, 2015). Erratic rainfall in the Cape, where winter rains vary between as little as 180 mm and 500 mm for the year (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 2014; Lötter et al., 2022), is also increasing the pressure to keep crops alive in one of the country’s driest regions.


Response

In response to the future risks of environmental change, there is small-scale farming of wild redbush, which, if carefully managed, can survive with less rainfall (Ives, 2014a; Lötter et al., 2022) for up to 50 years (Malgas & Oettle, 2007); cultivated crops can only last up to 15 years (Gorelik, 2017).


Regional droughts have increased the demand for the long-neglected but resistant wild redbush Rooibos, exposing “unsustainable” harvest management (Wynberg, 2017). Local knowledge of wild redbush management and sourcing is critical to maintaining its future sustainability (Hawkins et al., 2011; Wilkinson et al., 2024).


The most noticeable grass-roots development in the Rooibos tea industry, in response to economic and climatic pressures, has been the formation of the Heiveld Cooperative. To support the small-scale sustainable farming of wild redbush, the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG), a South African Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) based in Cape Town, created the Heiveld Cooperative in 2001 with 14 members (Avaclim, 2020). Despite the Rooibos tea market being dominated by large-scale commercial farmers (Biénabe et al., 2009), the cooperative’s organically farmed wild brand was met with success (United Nations Development Programme, 2015).


Figure 7: The redbush Heiveld Cooperative, established in 2001, in Nieuwoutdville, South Africa (Macherez, 2015).

In 2024, the Heiveld Cooperative has 74 members in the Suid Bokkeveld, implementing sustainable farming methods (Brooks et al., 2021) and using local knowledge to manage the land (Lötter et al., 2022). Soil protection measures include minimal machine harvesting. It also empowers local women through employment opportunities (Daya & Authar, 2012). For its environmental efforts, the cooperative became the first Rooibos tea producer in the world to be certified by Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO) in 2003, a sustainability movement that has empowered the South African Rooibos workers and reinvigorated a significant industry (Rampedi & Olivier, 2008; Raynolds & Ngcwangu, 2010).


Conclusion

Rooibos tea is at a critical phase in its production history, brought about by the unpredictability of climate change and the ability to supply a global demand for herbal tea. In the context of the risk theories of Gidden and Beck, the future of the redbush plant is creating insecurities for the local farmers. The risk could be the destruction of an interlinked culture and economy.


As a commodified resource, the fear of a poor redbush harvest raises prices, creating divisions between the large-scale farmer and their smaller, poorer counterpart.


The extremes of climate change magnify the problems faced by this impoverished region, where agriculture is the main source of employment. Harnessing local knowledge, sustainable farming methods, and a holistic approach to land management are critical to protecting this globally valuable and unique resource and for the survival of communities and families in the Cederberg and on the Suid Bokkeveld.



*Previously published in Waugh, E. (2024). Local Impacts of Global Climate Change. Arcadia, 7 April. Retrieved from https://www.byarcadia.org/post/local-impacts-of-global-climate-change



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