Montana State University

MSU professor wins grant to study how weather changes impact tea quality

October 18, 2013 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

MSU health and human development professor Selena Ahmed and other researchers have won a four-and-a-half year, $931,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how long-term changes in weather and shifting patterns of precipitation impact the quality of tea. Photo courtesy of Selena Ahmed.Selena Ahmed, a professor in the MSU Department of Health and Human Development, and other researchers have won a four-and-a-half year, $931,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how long-term changes in weather and shifting patterns of precipitation impact the quality of tea. The team will study tea samples gathered from multiple sites. This image shows tea crops in the mountains of southwestern China's Yunnan Province during the onset of the monsoon season. Photo courtesy of Selena Ahmed.

MSU health and human development professor Selena Ahmed and other researchers have won a four-and-a-half year, $931,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how long-term changes in weather and shifting patterns of precipitation impact the quality of tea. Photo courtesy of Selena Ahmed.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University professor and other researchers have won a four-and-a-half year, $931,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how long-term changes in weather and shifting patterns of precipitation impact the quality of tea, farming communities and land-use strategies.

As part of their research, MSU health and human development professor Selena Ahmed and an interdisciplinary team of researchers will gather tea samples and analyze the chemistry and taste of tea, among other factors. Ahmed said she is particularly interested in learning how the health benefits of tea are changing and what management practices can best reduce risks associated with producing and distributing tea. The group will also examine the economic effects of changes in tea quality, Ahmed said.

“If the taste and chemistry of tea are so sensitive to the rains, how do shifting precipitation patterns of global climate change impact tea quality, farmer livelihoods and human well-being?” Ahmed asked.

Tea is a multi-billion dollar industry, Ahmed added, with many consumers choosing to drink it in order to receive health benefits.

In fact, today tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, second only to water, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Hundreds of millions of people around the world drink tea, which has been cultivated for centuries, beginning in China and India.

Green tea, in particular, is recognized for its many health benefits, Ahmed said, with green tea reportedly containing the highest concentration of powerful antioxidants called polyphenols. Antioxidants fight free radicals, or damaging compounds in the body that change cells, damage DNA, and even cause cell death. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, many scientists believe that free radicals contribute to the aging process and the development of many health problems, including cancer and heart disease. Research suggests that antioxidants such as polyphenols in green tea can help prevent cardiovascular disease, burn calories and even ward off some types of cancer. And, the University of Maryland Medical Center reports that green tea has been used to help improve heart health, regulate body temperature and blood sugar, and promote digestion, among other uses.

In the United States, tea purchases have increased for 20 consecutive years and annual sales have surpassed $2.2 billion, according to the Tea Association of the USA, a New-York based industry group. The association says that on any given day, 160 million Americans drink tea.

Ahmed’s research into tea quality got its start seven years ago, when she was interviewing farmers for her doctoral research on how management choices and environmental factors affect tea quality in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province. Ahmed’s host mentioned that the tea they were farming had changed in taste over the years.

“It became clear to me that farmers were concerned about land-use change and climate change,” Ahmed said. “I began to collect evidence that these changes were impacting their food and tea systems, and that farmers perceived that such environmental and management changes impact the health benefits derived from crops.”  

The farmers told Ahmed that over their lifetimes, they experienced hotter temperatures in the winters, with dry seasons becoming even drier. Then in the wet season, rains were becoming even more intense and extreme.

“Farmers are seeing tea buds burst earlier, so there is a longer harvest season, but because the rains are coming earlier in some communities, the precipitation can lead to a decrease in quality,” Ahmed said. “My preliminary research shows that antioxidant compounds that contribute to tea’s health benefits can decrease as much as 50 percent with the onset of the monsoons, while other compounds increase. It’s complex, and we are trying to elucidate patterns in this complexity.

“People don’t buy tea for yields; they buy it for its health benefits, sensory properties and for cultural purposes,” Ahmed added. “As a result, these changes in precipitation are impacting agro-ecosystems. They’re impacting people’s livelihoods.”

With the NSF grant, Ahmed will work with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Tufts University and the University of Florida to gather and analyze tea samples from multiple sites in three provinces of China. Among the researchers are chemical ecologist Colin Orians, cultural anthropologist Rick Stepp, agricultural economist Sean Cash, analytical chemist Albert Robbat, and crop and soil scientist Tim Griffin. Ahmed is a co-principal investigator on the grant as well as the lead international investigator and project coordinator. The research is one of 21 projects funded this year by the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program, which focuses on human interactions with the environment.

To gather the samples, Ahmed and Stepp will travel to the sites in China several times each year for three years. While there, they’ll record some data in the field, such as the size of the tea leaves, which can indicate how weather impacts the growth of the tea. Then, Ahmed will bring the samples back to MSU to analyze their main health compounds, which also influence taste. Meanwhile, her colleagues will analyze the samples for chemical compounds that are responsible for taste and smell to determine how climate may impact consumers’ decisions about tea.

During summer visits to China, Ahmed will also conduct hundreds of interviews with tea farmers and tea traders. She said the interviews will be focused on understanding farmers’ perceptions of weather patterns and changes in precipitation, as well as tea traders’ willingness to pay for tea on the basis of how they perceive tea quality. During those visits, Ahmed and Stepp will also be studying other sites to identify socioeconomic factors that enable communities to be more or less resilient to extreme weather events.

Lynda Ransdell, dean of MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development, called Ahmed a “bright, rising star” in the college.

Ransdell noted that in addition to her research into tea, Ahmed is also working on other research projects related to food and health.

“Selena is working on some local projects to examine the role of indigenous food systems in lessening the risks of chronic disease in Native American communities in Montana,” Ransdell said.

Ahmed is also recognized for her exemplary teaching skills in one of the college’s fastest-growing majors, sustainable food and bioenergy systems, Ransdell added.

For her part, Ahmed hopes that the research into tea quality will provide important information that will help people better manage agro-ecosystems in the face of environmental variations and risks associated with extreme weather.

“This research could influence management decisions – not just with tea, but with other crops as well,” Ahmed said. “If there’s a more sustainable way of growing crops, the information will have implications around the globe, including here in Montana.”

Contact: Selena Ahmed, (406) 994-5640 or selena.ahmed@montana.edu