Sri Lanka’s initiative to be the first producer of 100% natural food products threatens its precious tea market and has raised fears of crop failure that could lead to economic stagnation.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has banned chemical fertilizers from being released this year but tea growers expect the crop to run out in October, cinnamon, pepper and staple foods such as rice are also facing problems.
Senior tea producer Herman Gunaratne, one of the 46 experts selected by Rajapaksa to lead the evolutionary process, fears the worst.
“The ban has made the tea very turbulent,” Gunaratne said at his farm in Ahangama, in the mountains 160km (100 miles) south of Colombo.
“The consequences for this country are unparalleled.”
The 76-year-old, who grows one of the world’s most expensive tea plants, fears that Sri Lanka’s 300 million pounds (660 million pounds) yields could be halved if the government changes.
Sri Lanka is facing an economic crisis stemming from the outbreak, with economic activity declining by more than 3% last year and the government’s declining prospects affected by the new coronavirus.
Fertilizers and pesticides are among the main export items – including cars and other equipment – and the government is standing by the fight against the shortage of foreign investment.
Food security ‘disrupted’
But tea is the largest exporter in Sri Lanka, bringing in more than $ 1.25bn a year, accounting for about 10% of exports.
Rajapaksa came to power in 2019 promising foreign fertilizer for cash but took turns, claiming that pesticides are killing people.
Gunaratne, whose White tea sells for $ 2,000 per kilo, was fired last month from the Rajapaksa Task Force on Green Socio-Economy after agreeing with the President.
He also said that Ceylon tea in the country has the lowest concentration of any tea found in any tea and is not harmful.
Tea crop hit 160 million kilograms (352 million pounds) in early 2021, due to good weather and old stocks of fertilizer but yields began to fall in July.
Sanath Gurunada, who oversees the tea plantations in Ratnapura, southeast of Colombo, said if the ban continues “the harvest will start to deteriorate by October and we will see exports severely affected by November or December”.
He told the AFP news agency that his fields had retained part of the tourism sector but it was not possible.
Marine tea takes 10 times to make and the market is small, added Gurunada.
WA Wijewardena, deputy chief executive of the central bank and financial analyst, said the project was a “dream with unimaginable financial, political and economic implications”.
He also said that food security in Sri Lanka has “deteriorated” and that without foreign exchange “it is deteriorating on a daily basis”.
Experts say the problem of rice is also a major problem as vegetable growers are holding daily demonstrations to reduce yields and crops affected by pests.
“If we had organic, we would lose 50% of the yield, (but) we would not get 50% higher prices,” Gunaratne said.
Owners of tea plantations say that in addition to the loss of profits, crop failures can lead to high unemployment as tea leaves are also harvested by hand.
“With the end of tea, the employment of three million people will be at risk,” said the Tea Factory Owners Association.
Plants Minister Ramesh Pathirana said the government hopes to provide compost instead of chemical fertilizers.
“Our government is committed to providing the best products for the tea industry, using fertilizers,” he told AFP.
Farmers say the export of cinnamon and pepper to Sri Lanka will also be affected by natural resources.
Sri Lanka supplies 85% of the global Ceylon Cinnamon market, one of the two leading brands, according to United Nations figures.
However, Rajapaksa remains confident in his studies, telling a recent UN conference that he was confident that his naturalistic efforts would ensure “more food and food” for the people of Sri Lanka.
He also called on other countries to follow in the footsteps of Sri Lankans and “strong measures needed to change the global food system”.