Courtesy of the South China Morning Post
- Aiming to become the world’s leading producer of 100% organic food, Sri Lanka has banned chemical fertilizers. It could cause an agricultural disaster, critics say
- President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the ban would prevent people from poisoning themselves and improve nutrition and food security. Experts say the opposite is likely
Sri Lanka’s drive to become the world’s leading producer of 100% organic food threatens its prized tea industry and raises fears of a wider agricultural disaster that could deal another blow to the beleaguered economy.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has banned chemical fertilizers this year to start his organic race, but tea plantation owners predict harvests could fail as early as October, with cinnamon, pepper and staples such as rice also in the pipeline. difficulty.
Tea master Herman Gunaratne, one of the 46 experts chosen by Rajapaksa to lead the organic revolution, fears the worst.
The ban has thrown the tea industry into complete disarray, ”Gunaratne said at his plantation in Ahangama, in the hills 160 kilometers south of Colombo. The consequences for the country are unimaginable.
Sri Lanka’s ‘organic revolution’ threatens the country’s tea industry
The 76-year-old, who grows one of the world’s most expensive teas, fears Sri Lanka’s average annual harvest of 300,000 tonnes will be cut in half unless the government changes course.
Sri Lanka is in the throes of a pandemic-induced economic crisis, with gross domestic product contracting more than 3% last year, and the government’s hopes for a return to growth have been hit by a new coronavirus wave.
Fertilizers and pesticides are among a host of key imports – including vehicles and parts – that the government has halted as it battles foreign exchange shortages.
Gunaratne says the country’s Ceylon tea has one of the lowest chemical contents of any tea and poses no threat. The tea harvest hit a record 160 million kilograms in the first half of 2021 thanks to good weather and old fertilizer stocks, but the harvest started to decline in July.
Tea maker Herman Gunaratne at the Virgin White tea plantation in Ahangama, Sri Lanka. He fears the worst for the Sri Lankan tea industry. Photo: AFP
Sanath Gurunada, who runs organic and classic tea plantations in Ratnapura, southeast of Colombo, said if the ban was upheld, the harvest would start to collapse by October and exports would be seriously affected. ‘by November or December’.
He said his plantation maintains an organic section for tourism, but that is not sustainable. Organic tea costs 10 times more to produce and the market is limited, Gurunada added.
WA Wijewardena, former deputy governor of the central bank and economic analyst, called the organic project a dream with unimaginable social, political and economic costs ”.
A worker works on a tea plantation in Ratnapura. Photo: AFP
He said Sri Lanka’s food security has been compromised and without foreign currency it is getting worse by the day ”.
Experts say the rice problem is also acute, as vegetable growers hold daily protests near reduced crops and crops affected by pests. If we go fully organic we will lose 50 percent of the harvest, [but] we’re not going to get 50% higher prices, ”Gunaratne said.
Tea plantation owners say that in addition to lost income, a poor harvest would lead to huge unemployment, as tea leaves are still picked by hand. With the collapse of tea, the jobs of three million people will be threatened, ”said the Association of Tea Factory Owners.
A worker at a tea plantation in Ratnapura. Photo: AFP
Plantations Minister Ramesh Pathirana said the government hoped to provide organic compost instead of chemical fertilizers. Our government is committed to providing something good for the tea industry when it comes to fertilizers, ”he said.
Farmers say Sri Lanka’s cinnamon and pepper exports will also be affected by the organic campaign. Sri Lanka supplies 85 percent of the world market for Ceylon cinnamon, one of the two main types of spice, according to United Nations figures.
Yet Rajapaksa remains committed to his journey, saying at a recent United Nations summit that he was convinced his organic initiative would ensure greater food and nutrition security “for Sri Lankans.