Opinion | The ban on chemical fertilizer and the way forward of Sri Lankan Tea Industry

Tea, which was commercially commenced in 1867 by James Taylor, a British entrepreneur, at the Loolecondera tea estate, is one of the major plantation crops in Sri Lanka and accounts for a considerable percentage of the total agricultural exports of the country. In 2020, the industry has recorded a production of 278 million kilograms which has earned 1.42 billion US Dollar foreign exchange.  Owing to the importance of the tea industry in the national economy, the Tea Research Institute (TRI) of Sri Lanka has taken several significant steps to develop the domestic tea plantations from seedling tea to vegetatively propagated tea (VP). As a result of this evolution, several VP cultivars namely; 2023, 2025, 2026, 2027 and 4042 were introduced and by now these are very much popular among the planters. These newly developed cultivars can produce comparatively higher harvest than that of traditional seedling tea and they have high resistance to pest and disease damages and easily adapt to the changing climatic conditions. At present, the extent under tea in the country is around 200,000 ha of which 90 percent are VP tea. It is noteworthy that due to the high yielding nature of this VP tea, providing a balanced mixture of nutrients at the correct time is crucial for sustaining the tea plantations.

Using the research data available at the Tea Research Institute, the amount of Nitrogen removed from a unit area of tea land due to green leaf harvest and various environmental factors can be calculated. Since the tea plants do not get Nitrogen and other nutrients similar to the rate of depletion in the natural environment, the growers tend to supplement these nutrients specially for mature tea plantations once in three months through the application of chemical fertilizer. The TRI has provided fertilizer recommendations based on the potential yield. It can be observed that U709 and U834, the two most commonly used fertilizer mixtures for mature plantations, are applied in different quantities based on the yield by the growers. If this Nitrogen nutrient requirement is to be fulfilled solely by organic fertilizer, it is essential to apply high-quality compost fertilizer in recommended quantities (see the table below) as the Nitrogen percentage in such fertilizer is around 1.5%.

Tea Hand book-TRIRecommended quantities for mature tea fields in Kg/year
Average Yield (Green leaf / acre/year) (V.P)Nitrogen removal rate (Kg/acre/year)U834 fertilizer mixtureU709 fertilizer mixtureOrganic fertilizer (considering the Nitrogen requirement only)
3,720-4,6561084503867,200
4,656- 5,5801284574578,533
5,580-6,5041445145149,600
6,504<16057157110,666

 

However, it is important to keep in mind that heavy metals can be included in high concentrations in compost fertilizer which are made of urban wastes. Application of such compost mixtures will leave residues of high metals in produced tea and such products will be rejected in the international market further deteriorating the credibility and the market demand for Ceylon Tea.

Moreover, in reality, tea cultivation is not as attractive as in pictures.  Therefore, greater attention needs to be diverted towards the livelihood of tea growers rather than limiting to the numbers and figures. It is too early to comment on the difficulties that the growers will face in future when carrying large bundles of organic fertilizer which is ten times higher than that of inorganic fertilizer once in three months along the bumpy roads. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the yield will increase even if doing so. Furthermore, there is no alternative for T65, T200 and T750 which are being used in managing nurseries and immature plantations through organic cultivation thus far and it is uncertain in the near future as well. Therefore, it is evident that the negative impacts of the cessation of chemical fertilizer will be realized in the tea industry soon.

The global share of Ceylon tea has eroded in the recent past demoting Sri Lanka into the 4th position. One of the bitter truths that we have to apprehend is that the world has already surpassed us. Kenya, which was an emerging tea producer a few years back has been able to boost its tea industry to reach the 3rd position in the world by incorporating new environmentally friendly chemical fertilizer technologies into their tea cultivation.

The concurrent discussion on chemical fertilizer in Si Lanka nowadays have been at the forefront of the controversies and debates in the world a few years ago and the ultimate result generated in these extensive discussions were not to completely banning of the use of chemical fertilizer. Instead, it paves the way to evolve the next generation complex fertilizer mixtures which are environmentally friendly, efficient and retain in the soil for a longer period. By now most of the countries have adopted this technology and they are generating positive agro technological results through this.

As Sri Lankans, what we should for the betterment of the tea industry is to take steps to incentivize growers to adopt safety practices including excess usage and to make aware of the application of balanced nutrients while introducing the importance of trace elements. Furthermore, rather than compiling urban wastage with high heavy metal contents in the tea lands, steps could have been made to promote establishing high and medium shades. Through this, the quality of the tea can be maintained while reducing the chemical fertilizer usage by supplementing organic and inorganic nutrients to the tea lands.

 

 Shade Tree SpeciesPer year
Nutrients (Kg/acre)Organic (Ton/acre)
NPKMg 
Low countryAlbizia (Albizia moluccana)172422-2.5
Gliricidia (Gliricidia maculate)6583998
Up/ Mid countrySabukku ( Gravillea robusta)122922-3.1
Erabadu (Erythrina lithasperma)55113266

Source: related research data

By diverting the attention of policymakers towards pointless nonscientific arguments instead of promoting such integrated management systems and high technological fertilizer production, will be only a time-wasting effort and meanwhile, the global demand for Ceylon Tea will generate diminishing returns. At present, there are about 500,000 direct beneficiaries from the tea industry and about 600 factories are operating around the country. In general, the livelihood of around 3 million people is directly and indirectly woven around the domestic tea industry.  The researchers and the experienced growers have predicted that a 50 percent reduction in the yield has to be anticipated with the ban of chemical fertilizer. The negative implication of this yield reduction is such that there is a risk of collapsing the banking sector which is centralized around the tea industry in the major tea growing areas including Ratnapura, Galle, Matara, Kaluthara, and Kegalle. Therefore, if the decisions on such economically and socially sensible sectors are to be taken, these should be based on a wider view covering all the aspects. Otherwise, these decisions will distort the livelihood of the people and the country’s economy as well.

At the moment, most of the government and private sector organizations and researchers are engaging in researching, developing and adopting environmental friendly composite fertilizer technologies. Nevertheless, by adopting the integrated nutrient management systems we will be able to increase our market share in the world tea market. For the development and the betterment of the country, the role of the government should be taking strategic and sustainable policy decisions rather than making decisions from the political view as such political decisions maybe look like “cutting the nose because of a fault in the face”.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of Agrigate Global.

Translated by M.G.D Abeysekara