Tea industry: Continuing concerns over fertiliser issue 

By Uwin Lugoda 

The Government’s move to ban the import of chemical fertilisers might end up negatively impacting one of the country’s biggest export sectors, according to officials. Sri Lanka’s tea industry stakeholders have expressed a collective concern for the industry due to the potential impact on the yield and pricing of the crop. 

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, two of the main authorities under the industry have shared the same concerns and have asked for better planning before implementation. 

The ban came following a cabinet decision on 27 April, granting approval to a proposal made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban the use and importation of chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals. This was due to the usage of chemical fertilisers having negative consequences on society via the pollution of lakes, canals, and groundwater. 

In addition, the country’s health sector too supported the President’s move, linking chemical fertilisers to several non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including kidney diseases. 

Moreover, the policy is also aimed towards making Sri Lanka the first country in the world that exclusively practises organic agriculture. 

Tea industry response 

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) Chairman Bhathiya Bulumulla stated that a complete ban of inorganic fertilisers may result in a 40% loss of crops, according to their scientific analyses. 

He explained that crops in Sri Lanka require three key ingredients to produce a good yield – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, all of which are obtained through inorganic fertilisers. 

“Each crop we look at needs specific doses of these three ingredients. If we look at fruits like coconut, it needs potassium which we need to source from other countries. Then there is phosphorus, which is needed for root vegetables. Finally, we have nitrogen, which is needed for tea,” he explained. 

He said that the nitrogen required by tea plants comes from urea and is a byproduct of fossil fuels like petroleum. Fertilisers that include a higher percentage of nitrogen ensures a better yield. 

Bulumulla stated that while it is not impossible to use just organic fertiliser for tea, the doubt lies in whether or not it will be viable for the commercial production of tea in the current competitive market. He explained that local suppliers need to be cost-competitive if they are to stay ahead of other countries, which might not be possible with organic fertilisers. 

“Our production cost is already high, but urea has 46% nitrogen, while compost, which is organic, has only 1-2% nitrogen. So, you can imagine the quantity of compost needed to replace the urea requirement. We are not ready for this,” Bulumulla said. 

He stated that cultivars in Sri Lanka are mostly hybrids that are used to certain kinds of fertilisers. Therefore, he went on to state that changing the kind of fertiliser given to the crops without a proper plan in place, will negatively impact the crop’s yield. 

According to Bulumulla, the industry has been dealing with both organic and inorganic fertilisers for years and knows what to expect. He explained that using organic fertilisers can increase the price of Sri Lankan tea, leading to the country losing its price advantage. 

“We have seen this with organically grown vegetables. These vegetables are more expensive than their inorganically grown counterparts. I think we can grow a few premium teas organically and charge a higher price, but we cannot do it for all the teas in the country,” he pointed out. 

He further stated that the industry would be on board with the new policy, if the Government had presented a proper plan prior to the implementation. However, if the current plan continues, the industry, as a whole, will face a product loss and a downgrade in quality, since without the proper fertilisers, the teas will have too much fibre in them. 

Bulumulla stated that if Sri Lanka’s existing quality were to drop, our current tea export markets would be taken over by competitors, leading to an overall loss in revenue. 

Therefore, he suggested that the policy be done in phases, wherein they implement a framework including both organic and inorganic fertilisers to reduce harmful chemicals going into the environment, while also not compromising on the quality and yield. He explained that the industry has experience in implementing this kind of hybrid fertilisation technique before. 

Bulumulla stated that they have reached out to the Government to address these concerns, both as an individual organisation and as a collective with the rest of the industry, but have only received a response from the line ministers. 

“If they come out with a miracle organic fertiliser to cater to the specific needs of the plants, then we have no problem, but until then, they need to understand that we cannot completely depend on organic fertilisers,” he added. 

Speaking for local tea exporters, Tea Exporters’ Association of Sri Lanka (TEA) Chairman Sanjaya Herath agreed with Bulumulla, noting that a loss in production will also mean a loss in revenue. 

However, he stated that the exporters won’t be feeling the true impact of this till next year. 

“We have been told there is fertiliser till the end of the year, so the exporters will only feel the impact in 2022, while the producers will face it first. But our overall revenue for tea exports depends on the supply of these producers,” he said. 

He stated that it will be similar to a situation they faced last year when local tea production was low – with only around 270 billion kilogrammes being available – due to poor weather conditions and crop shortage. This resulted in the industry only bringing in Rs. 230.1 billion in 2020, compared to 2019’s Rs. 240.6 billion. 

Despite this, Herath stated that the industry was back on track to meet this year’s target of $ 1.5 billion, with the last few months showing an average of 30% production compared to last year. However, he explained that next year will depend on how the producers are impacted. 

“Plants need their nutrients and ingredients to grow, so it depends on how tea producers are impacted. We have already informed the relevant authorities that if the introduction of organic fertilisers results in a crop shortage, there will also be a revenue loss. But as for this year, we can reach the revenue target, provided that the same production rate is maintained,” he explained. 

He stated that while producers are expecting a drop of around 40-50% in production, they are also expecting the prices to go up. However, due to Ceylon Tea already being a high-priced tea compared to other teas, he said that increasing the price further will lead to the industry losing several international markets. 

Herath stated that there is also a concern for the quality of organically grown tea since it has not been done on such a large scale, adding that the quality of the tea should not be compromised and the quantity should be kept at the same level or higher. 

He pointed out that tea exporters want to export pure tea with no chemical residue and believe that the overall policy is a good one. However, he stated that the Government’s current plan to blend biochar with compost and liquid nitrogen in order to make organic fertiliser is untested, and should be done in phases within a period of one to two years. 

“The world tea production is increasing and we need to be competitive. So, we need to look at a new pricing and production model with this new policy implementation. We are supportive of sustainable agricultural practices, but we think the industry needs to be given time to get the house in order,” he added.