Sri Lanka’s efforts to become the world’s first 100% organic food producer threatened its precious tea industry and raised concerns about a wider crop disaster, which could have a further blow to the troubled economy.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned the use of chemical fertilizers this year to start his organic competition, but tea planters predict that crops may fail as early as October, and staple foods such as cinnamon, pepper and rice are also facing trouble.

Tea master Herman Gunaratne, one of the 46 experts selected by Rajapaksa to guide the organic revolution, fears the worst.

“This ban has thrown the tea industry into complete chaos,” Gunaratne said in his Ahangama plantation in the rolling hills 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Colombo.

“The consequences for this country are unimaginable.”

The 76-year-old grows one of the most expensive teas in the world, and he fears that unless the government changes direction, Sri Lanka’s annual output of 300 million kilograms (660 million pounds) will be cut by half.

Sri Lanka is in the midst of an economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Last year’s GDP contracted by more than 3%. The government’s hopes of resuming growth were hit by the new wave of coronavirus.

Fertilizers and pesticides are a series of major imported products, including automobiles and spare parts, and the government has stopped imports while fighting the shortage of foreign exchange.

Food safety “damaged”

However, tea is Sri Lanka’s largest single export product, with an annual revenue of more than US$1.25 billion, accounting for about 10% of the country’s export revenue.

Rajapaksa came to power in 2019 and promised to subsidize foreign fertilizers, but then turned around, believing that agricultural chemicals are poisoning people.

Gunaratne’s virgin white tea, which sells for US$2,000 per kilogram, was delisted by Rajapaksa’s green socio-economic task force last month after disagreeing with the president.

He said that the country’s Ceylon tea has the lowest chemical composition of all teas and does not pose a threat.

Thanks to good weather and old fertilizer stocks, tea production reached a record 160 million kilograms (352 million pounds) in the first half of 2022, but the harvest began to decline in July.

Sanath Gurunada, who manages the organic and classic tea plantations in Ratnapura, southeast of Colombo, said that if the ban continues, “crops will begin to collapse in October and we will see exports severely affected in November or December”.

He told AFP that his plantation kept an organic tourist area, but it was not feasible.

Gurunada added that the production cost of organic tea is 10 times higher and the market is limited.

WA Wijewardena, former central bank deputy governor and economic analyst, called this organic project “a dream with unimaginable social, political and economic costs.”

He said that Sri Lanka’s food security has been “damaged”, and there is no foreign exchange, the situation is “deteriorating day by day”.

Work at stake

Experts say that the rice problem is also serious, and vegetable growers are holding protests almost every day to protest the reduced harvest and crops affected by pests.

“If we use organic methods completely, we will lose 50% of our harvest, (but) our prices will not increase by 50%,” Gunaratne said.

Tea planters say that in addition to loss of income, crop failures will cause a lot of unemployment, because tea is still picked by hand.

“With the collapse of tea, the jobs of 3 million people will be in danger,” the tea factory owners’ association said in a statement.

Plantation Minister Ramesh Pathirana stated that the government hopes to provide organic compost instead of chemical fertilizers.

He told AFP: “Our government is committed to providing something beneficial to the tea industry in terms of fertilizers.”

Farmers said that Sri Lanka’s exports of cinnamon and pepper will also be affected by organic farming.

According to United Nations data, Sri Lanka provides Ceylon cinnamon with 85% of the global market share, and Ceylon cinnamon is one of the two main spices.

Despite this, Rajapaksa remains confident in his courses. He said at a recent United Nations summit that he believes his organic initiative will ensure that Sri Lankans “get greater food security and nutrition”.

He called on other countries to follow Sri Lanka’s actions and take “the bold steps needed to sustainably change the world’s food system.”

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