How the move to organic fertiliser will benefit the tea industry

  • A sustainable solution to the decline in tea production, export revenue, and livelihood issues


The word “sustainability” is often distorted without being used in ecological context to get its proper meaning. In simple terms, we have the responsibility to protect the right of future generations to live in a safe environment. Similarly, climate change can be understood as a set of alterations in the average weather caused by global warming due to the emission of greenhouse gases. The climate change phenomenon is serious, which is worse than the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the one challenge that potentially has the most severe impacts globally and on Sri Lanka. The very reason for this is that climate change affects virtually every aspect of our “every day, today” life – economic, social, and environmental. It is a multidimensional challenge, with its impacts ranging from issues like human health, supply of safe water and food, biodiversity, economic development, etc.


‘Systems’ view of life


Modern science has come to realise that all scientific theories are approximations to the true nature of reality. Science doesn’t have answers to natural phenomena. The mechanistic view takes a closed view of a specific area which is a tiny part of a large system. They have dominated our culture for the past 300 and it is now about to change. Before 1500 AD, the dominant worldview was that people lived in small communities and experienced nature by the interdependence of spiritual and material phenomena.

The systems view looks at the world in terms of relationships and integration, inter-dependence of all phenomena, i.e. physical, biological, social, and cultural. Instead of concentrating on basic building blocks, the systems approach emphasises basic principles of organisation.

According to Prof. Fritjof Capra, an Austrian-born American physicist and the architect of the “systems view of life” to find lasting solutions, there are solutions to the major problems of our time. They require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, and our values. An “ecosystem” is a living system of communities of plants and animals, microbes sharing an environment with non-living plants such as air, water, climate, and soil. In my view, the above is the best illustration to understand the importance of adhering to the “system view of life” to find lasting solutions. Capra’s view is that our traditional politicians and business leaders have been unable to provide long-term solutions to these problems and he welcomed the creation of social movements founded on the premises to change the current traditional sociological paradigm and to build sustainable communities.

From the systemic point of view, the only viable solutions are those that are “sustainable” Therefore, the challenge of our time is to create sustainable communities, that is, social and cultural environments in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. The sustainable communities need to be designed in such a way its social structures do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life but rather support and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.


Structures, processes, and patterns


The following 10 points are useful in order to understand how the ecosystem works.

  1. An ecosystem is a living system of communities of plants and animals, microbes sharing an environment with non-living plants such as air, water, climate, and soil
  2. The theory of the living system tries to understand this and the ecological literature deals with the basic principles of ecology (and live accordingly)
  3. In nature, every organism, plant, micro-organism, cells, and tissues are all in a living system
  4. All living systems need energy and food
  5. All living systems produce waste, but there is no net waste
  6. Capra expresses the life of any living organism as made up of pattern, process, and structure
  7. If we apply these ideas to ourselves or our organisations, we can see that in the patterns we find our identity
  8. In these processes we develop our relationships, our beliefs, our principles, and behaviours, becoming more conscious
  9. In the structures we become more fluid, more focused on the present moment; we become alive
  10. The building of sustainable communities is deeply connected to our search for a new sociological paradigm

This gave rise to the concept of “Complex Adaptive Systems”, as a multidisciplinary concept, and it is considered complex because the systems are made up of diverse elements which are interconnected with each other and are adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience.


Decline in tea production, market share, revenue, despite chemical application


In this connection, we wish to state that Sri Lankan tea production has been drastically declining over a period of time, despite supplying large quantities of imported artificial fertiliser. For example, in 2010, total tea production was 330 million kilos, covering 222,000 hectares, wherein some 160,000 metric tonnes of fertiliser per year had been used on an average basis up to date on a regular basis. However, we have ended up with only 289 million kilos of tea production in 2020, covering 253,000 hectares. The compound annual average growth rate (CAGR) was negative 1.5% and the Sri Lankan tea industry cannot sustain anymore as both quality and quantity, as well as the competitiveness have drastically eroded. As a result, our market share has come down and the foreign exchange revenue which was around $ 1.6 billion eight years back has now come down to $ 1.24 million/year only. As you are aware, during the period 2017 to end 2019, a large number of tea factories had to close down and many smallholders were badly affected and the new/re-planting extents were less than 1%, whereas it should have been at least 2% of the cultivated extent.

As a result of excessive usage of agro-chemicals, there has been a number of rejections of our Ceylon tea consignments reported from the major important markets such as Japan, the EU (European Union), the UK, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, etc. This situation has arisen due to detection of pesticide residues in the Ceylon teas exported, which are over and the above the permitted maximum residue levels (MRLs). The Tea Exporters Association (TEA) has brought to the notice of the SLTB (Sri Lanka Tea Board) on a number of occasions serious non-compliances which include detection of excessive pesticide and other chemical residues over and above MRLs. In addition, the presence of foreign/extraneous matters and high moisture levels, which lead to microbial contamination and fungus formation, may end up in the development of micro toxin fungus – these will become a health hazard.


Tea plantation system as a complex, adaptive system


My own view is that the long-term goal of the Sri Lankan tea industry would be to build “sustainable communities” for the tea plantations, and achieving higher foreign exchange earnings from tea exports may be only one of the unit objectives.

A sustainable community is one that is economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient. It meets challenges through integrated solutions rather than through fragmented approaches that meet one of those goals at the expense of others. And it takes a long-term perspective – one that’s focused on both the present and future.

Scientists began to observe certain properties in biological systems. The adaptation of the individual, independent components within the system to the environment was one such property. The experts observed this phenomenon was visible in systems such as ecosystems, global economics systems, and social systems.


Strategies implemented by the new administration


With the new administration, the Government together with the private sector stakeholders have been able to reverse the negative trends experienced previously and the higher FOB (free on board) prices and increased tea auction sale averages are now getting trickled down to growers, thus addressing the livelihood income issues systematically.

The Sri Lanka tea industry witnessed a recovery amidst the Covid pandemic, with a substantial increase in production, and the export volume during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the corresponding period as well as the year 2020 compared to 2019.

  • During Q1 – January to March 2021 – tea export revenue was Rs. 65 billion, up by Rs. 16 billion YoY (year-on-year), from Rs. 49 billion during Q1 2020
  • Q1 – January to March 2021 – cumulative production totalled 74 million kg, up by 20 million kg
  • FOB price was Rs. 939 per kilo during Q1, which is an increase of 13%, from Rs. 827 during the corresponding period in 2020
  • FOB price in US $ during Q1 was $ 4.77 as against $ 4.47 during Q1 2020
  • March FOB in US $ was ($ 4.87) the highest ever
  • FOB price during the year 2020 was Rs. 867  per kilo, when compared to Rs. 823 per kilo during the year 2019

Consequent to this cabinet decision under the caption “Towards a green socio-economic pattern with sustainable solutions to climate change”, actions have been taken by the SLTB to request stakeholders to encourage them to produce, supply, and use organic manure to be set up on each agro-climatic region in large quantities. It was suggested in the SLTB circular that immediate action be taken by the TRI (Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka) to formulate and prepare specifications of organic manure applications covering different applications such as nursery stage, immature, mature VP, seedling, recommendations for small holdings, etc. The development of the organic fertiliser business needs high-tech inputs based on R&D (research and development), the required raw material availability, and market acceptance based on different crops. The regulatory issues that prohibit or delay arranging the import of trial quantities of organic materials (without micro-organisms) for R&D evaluation need to be addressed. The necessary guidelines from the regulatory authorities should support the development of organic fertiliser at a large scale.


Implementation of tea industry strategic plan


As a solution, we have recommended the stakeholders to follow strategies which include integrated weed management system, and migrate in to offering high-quality “Ceylon Tea” with near-zero pesticides and other chemicals to the global market in accordance with our “Tea industry strategic plan 20-25” and CTTA (Colombo Tea Traders Association of Sri Lanka) tea strategy roadmap.

One of the most striking features of the current operations of the stakeholders is the increased awareness and adherence of the social and environmental considerations at estate level. Ceylon tea is at an advantageous position in the global market viz; other competitors for reasons such as a “zero tolerance” policy on child labour, adherence to environmental considerations on a sustainable basis, and of course the quality of Ceylon Tea as perceived by the buyers. As a result, Ceylon Tea continues to fetch a higher price at the Colombo Auction compared to teas from other producing countries, although the cost structures and productivity levels of our estates are totally disproportionate to make the industry commercially viable in short to medium-term scenarios.

Tea plantations have to therefore pursue environmentally friendly and socially responsible practices and methods in all their agricultural field operations: (i) tea manufacturing processes and (ii) managing its employees (iii) to ensure that all-natural resources and eco-systems will be managed in a sustainable manner. The companies will have to make every endeavour to conserve the usage of all resources by optimising resource utilisation and minimising waste through practicing cleaner production principles. They will strive to be self-sufficient in green energy to operate all our tea factories through harnessing the hydropower potential within all the lands belonging to the company.

There are many strategies recommended by the TRI and others such as the development of agro-forestry farming systems using all unutilised estate land to have “nitrogen fixation”, as suggested by the TRI Chairman. This will improve the soil porosity, provided we issue guidelines instructing them to follow TRI guidelines on integrated soil fertility management strategies as mandatory good agricultural practices (GAPs) towards minimising soil acidity, top soil erosion, wastage of inputs, etc.




As stated, it is a fact that there has been no increase in productivity, but a gradual decline in tea productivity measured in terms of the yield per hectare in Sri Lankan tea estates, partly due to continuous application of chemical fertiliser and due to difficulties in adopting mitigating strategies to arrest negative impact of climate change. This depleted soil condition and land degradation issues need to be corrected as a matter of priority. This proposed strategy will enable the growers, at least, to correct the high acidity levels in the soil and improve soil porosity and tea product quality.

In sustainability circles much is written about the “three pillars of sustainability” or in other words, “triple bottom line” of environment, society, and economy. My own view is this is to confuse ends with means. Environmental sustainability and human wellbeing are two desirable points. Economic wellbeing in the long run is driven by those two. In other words, the necessary precondition for long-term economic sustainability and profitability of the tea estates is environmental and social wellbeing from the long-term perspective.

As for marketing tea in the global markets, the discerning customers have high expectations of the standards and practices applied by the supply chain, including tea estates. For example, tea is made according to the principles of “sustainable food” thus providing values to discerning customers, employees, and all other stakeholders. The SLTB global promotion campaign aims to popularise tea drinking around the world in order to expand demand and increase per capita consumption, using three USPs (unique selling propositions); authenticity means demonstrating sustainability credentials, wellness factor, and the premium quality of Ceylon Tea.

If the estate management does not take a long-term view, it is unlikely they will make profits on a continuous basis. Eventually, the long-term value creation for the shareholders depends on the sustainable development of the estates and the community in which they operate. That is why I consider the tea plantation sector as one of the truly complex adaptive systems.

Are we leaving the tea plantations to future generations in a better condition than we inherited?


(The writer is the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board)