Director-General  QU Dongyu
A statement by FAO Director-General QU Dongyu

International Tea Day 2023

Opening Remarks


Dr QU Dongyu, FAO Director-General

 19 May 2023



His Excellency the Minister of Sri Lanka,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo

Dear Colleagues, both here in Rome and connected virtually from around the world,


Today is a big day at FAO: this morning we celebrated World Bee Day, and this afternoon we are celebrating International Tea Day.


Today is also the day when – just 80 years ago - the United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture was first established in Hot Springs, West Virginia, in 1943.


It is important to remember our original aspirations set out 80 years ago by our ancestors. We must not forget our roots, while growing. We must not forget the roads we have travelled, and how we have struggled together during the past 80 years.


You can imagine, 80 years ago was in the middle of the dark ages of World War II, yet our ancestors, led by more than 40 countries, started thinking of establishing what would later come to be FAO – at that time there was not even a United Nations!


I am so delighted that finally after three and a half years, the pandemic has been officially declared ‘over’ by my colleagues from WHO.


As Deputy Director-General Semedo mentioned, tea was the common language that kept us united, through the FAO Women’s Committee “VirtualiTea”, during that pressing period during which you had to challenge yourselves, and overcome the challenges!


My appreciation goes to Deputy Director-General Semedo as the first Chairwoman in history of the FAO Women’s Committee – the first I established on 15 October 2019 in the UN System.


Now, we have settled into a new normal, but tea is still tea – but with a different understanding of the value of tea.


Looking back at the history of tea, about 5 000 years ago King Shen Nong Shi taught us how to drink tea. His birthday, by lunar calendar is 26 April 5 000 years ago – this is why 21 May, by western calendar, was selected to be nominated as International Tea Day.


He also taught us that drinking tea is a traditional medicine - Chinese medicine.


Furthermore, our Japanese friends also teach us “The Tea course”, which has a scientific meaning to cleanse us through boiling water. When people started drinking boiled water it was substantially revolutionary for health control, for disease control and health improvement. After boiling water, you have killed almost 99 percent of disease pathogens; therefore, drinking tea is a way to build healthy conditions.


I am very pleased to be with you today to celebrate this 4th International Tea Day, for the first time in person. I started to promote this day about 18 years ago, which shows that sometimes you just need a little patience!


After I arrived at FAO in 2019, we got the endorsement of the UN General Assembly, but then the lockdown came and we did not get a change to celebrate in person. Now, after four years, we are finally here!


In 2019, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 21 May annually as International Tea Day in recognition of the important role that tea production and processing can play in fighting hunger and poverty, empowering women and promoting rural development, and in ensuring the Four Betters: better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all – leaving no one behind.


The Four Betters is not a theoretical concept. You can connect it with every commodity. For example, the paddy rice: you need to produce better quality of rice and create a better environment for paddy rice fields; and then harmonize it with fish, and others. You need to reduce the use of insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers. Then you need a better life for rice culture.


You can apply the Four Betters to different locations, communities, countries and commodities.


In the last three years, the world has faced significant challenges, due to conflicts and economic downturns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, in overlap with extreme weather events due to the climate crisis.


The recently launched 2023 edition of the Global Report on Food Crises estimates that more than 258 million people in 58 countries and territories faced acute food insecurity in 2022.


The tea industry can become an engine of economic growth, and for the restoration of ecosystems. It can contribute to our fight against poverty and hunger, and represents a major source of income and employment, especially for rural communities.


Small-holder farmers, many of which are women, account for 60 percent of global tea production – they are the backbone of the sector.


It is a combination of agro-tourism, combining production and tourism, and culture, and it is also a labour-intensive, decent jobs industry. This is why this year’s celebration is focussed on smallholder tea producers. The producers are not only from the agricultural sector, but also from the processing side, as well as the cultural side.


For example, as you saw the Japanese Tea Course is also a tourist attraction.


We want to celebrate the achievements of smallholder tea producers, but also raise awareness about the significant challenges they face, and the urgent need to mobilize political will to support them.


They face low farm gate prices, weak extension services, limited market channels, poor access to credit and technology, and challenges to meet quality standards.


Tea constitutes the main source of subsistence for millions of poor families, mostly in lower-income countries.


Global tea production amounts to over USD 18 billion annually. That is only for the raw materials that they produce. If we also include the secondary industry and the service industry, the turnover is much higher.


While world tea trade is valued at about USD 9.8 billion - accounting for an important source of export earnings and foreign exchange for many poor countries.


Hundred and twenty years ago, the number one export commodity from China to the world was tea, which amounted to about 85 percent of total export value. That was the Silk Road from China to Rome, which also stopped over in Azerbaijan, Oman and some parts of Georgia.    


Globally, an encouraging trend we have observed over the past three years, is a remarkable increase of demand for tea, and, importantly, tea consumption by the youth segment of the market has expanded.


We need to build on these developments and make every effort to ensure that the tea sector benefits smallholder growers and rural communities, not only in the short, but also in the longer term.


Despite its importance, the tea sector continues to face significant structural challenges.


It needs to achieve greater sustainability and resilience along the whole value chain, from the tea leaves to the tea cup.


Economic sustainability requires that the economic activities throughout the tea value chain are equitably beneficial to all, to ensure that no one is left behind.


Environmental sustainability means making the sector more efficient and preserving resources for present and future generations.


Sustainability requires us to also consider the social dimension, by empowering women and youth, and ensuring that tea production and processing are respectful of social norms and standards.


However, for small-scale tea operations to remain viable in an increasingly competitive market setting, they need to constantly innovate and explore new ways of doing things better.


Digitalization and innovation-driven solutions, as well as access to finance, are essential to the future sustainability of the tea sector, and to increase its contribution to the 2030 Agenda and achieving the SDGs.


We must all work together and leverage all the possibilities, including increased and more targeted public and private investments, to transform the tea sector.


To make it a part of the needed transformation towards more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable agrifood systems, and to achieve the Four Betters: better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all, leaving no one behind.


International Tea Day is an important occasion for all of us to come together to celebrate tea, not only as a commodity, but also as a culture, a heritage, and a means of livelihood.


I also want to increase public awareness on tea. When I was Vice-Minister, I built up a simultaneous summit dialogue between tea and coffee, because they are the two most important beverages in the world.


We call them “the two styles”.  One is Africa style coffee - it is like the flamingo, the bird.


And tea represents calm. Like the Japanese lady said, it represents calm, serenity, harmony and simplicity.


So, these two different styles is what harmonizes the world. From the Ethiopian plateau, the original place for coffee, to the tea from China.


This is the world: we need to benefit from each other, learn from each other and balance each other. This is the real picture of the world.


I hope you enjoy your tea, and do not forget about coffee!


Thank you.