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Tea and Panda Poop

(post, Sarah Price)

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This morning, via the company Facebook page, I learned about a controversial new endeavor in the tea world: tea grown in panda poop.  The notion elicited disgust from some of our customers, but I want to examine it further: should we fear feces?
Poop is gross.  Anyone who has ever changed a diaper knows this.  Even the fecal matter or horses or cows (which consume strictly hays and grasses and leave behind mostly the same) is gross.  You wouldn’t want to eat it, and I certainly wouldn’t put any in my cup of tea.  But that’s not what they’re doing with this panda poo—they are using it to fertilize the soil.
Is poop gross?  Not when it’s in the dirt, in my opinion.
If you’ve never planted in Arizona soil, let me tell you something about it: It is virtually worthless.  Compost, or fertilizer, is not an option.  It is a requirement.  Just a few inches under the pale, crusty dirt is a layer of what we call “caliche,” which is essentially a natural cement and your shovel’s worst enemy.  Once you’ve busted through it and made your dirt more pliable for planting, you have the problem of drainage.  The desert floor is as thirsty as its inhabitants, and it consumes water at an unbelievably fast rate.  You can virtually flood a garden, and it will be bone-dry again within an hour.  It is hard to keep our soil wet and the roots of our plants satiated.  Very few species thrive in this kind of environment, and as a result there is little decomposing plant matter to provide nutrients to the dirt.  The cycle is complete.  So we fertilize—the compost helps our dry dirt to retain water and compensates for the nutrients that it otherwise lacks.  It enables us to grow more than cactus or shrubs in our desert state.  I wouldn’t take my soil without it.

Poop of all kinds has been used in composts and fertilizers for centuries.  This is not a new concept.  Manure is a frequent ingredient: cow, horse, chicken, sheep, and even pig poo.  Plants love it.  What about guano (bat feces) or castings (the excrement of worms)?  They are the champagnes of poop, the really high-end stuff, and gardeners will pay a pretty penny to massage them into their soil.  
Of course, there are several caveats to the poo issue: I wouldn’t want my edibles grown with the feces of a carnivore, such as a canine, feline, or any of us nasty humans.  I mean, just smell the difference between what comes out of us and what comes out of, say, a cow—or, better yet, don’t.  Hold your nose.  The cows have us beat hands-down, and so, I would assume, does the panda.
Panda bears consume bamboo, and very little else.  There is nothing stinky or gross about that.  In addition, their digestive systems are very inefficient and their bodies only take up about 30% of the nutrients they consume.  Their excrements, as a result, are full of good fibers (which help to retain water) and other helpful nutrients and byproducts, like nitrogen.  It would be a shame not to give those nutrients back to the plant world.
But will consumers pay top dollar for tea grown amidst the poo of pandas?  That has yet to be seen.  The developer of the tea, An Yashi, expects to fetch up to $36,000 per pound for his dried tea leaves.  Let me say it again: thirty-six thousand dollars per pound.  Compare that to our most expensive tea offering: Jasmine White Tea Pearls, which retail for nearly $200 per pound.  Needless to say, we, here at Maya Tea, will not be bringing the Panda Poo Tea into our inventory.
Which begs the question: How much is the panda poo really worth?  How much does it really affect the resulting cup of tea?  Sure, it makes the soil rich.  It creates full, beautiful plants.  But, when all is said and done, are the individual leaves so much better than those grown with, say, bat dung?  Maybe they are… but, $36,000 better?

Not likely.  I’ll take my tea with guano, thank you.
And so, here is my evaluation, take it for what it’s worth: Panda Poo Tea is not gross.  (But it might be just a little silly.)