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Sri Lanka’s tea yields could plummet without chemical fertilizer -industry

COLOMBO, Oct 5 (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s ambitious plan to aggressively promote organic farming by banning imports of chemical fertilizers could reduce tea yields by as much as 40% and cripple the $1.5 billion industry that provides employment to nearly a million people, industry officials told Reuters.

The world’s fourth biggest tea producer and third biggest exporter banned fertilizer imports in May to become the first country in the world to go 100% organic.

But tea plantation owners are worried the 150-year-old industry will be hit drastically, as they say chemical inputs are needed to ensure steady yields.

“Some of these tea bushes are over 100 years old. They are dependent on chemical fertilisers, fungicide and weedicide. It is not possible to simply shift away from chemical fertiliser in a matter of months without consequences,” Planters Association spokesman Roshan Rajadurai told Reuters.

“There is still a 1% chance to turn things around in this quarter if the government acts quickly and allows chemical fertiliser imports. If not, the writing is on the wall.”

Sri Lanka spends $300-$400 million annually on fertiliser imports. The ban on fertilizer imports could also hit Sri Lanka’s rubber and coconut plantations, whose export earnings totaled $1.5 billion in 2020, industry officials said.

Less than 1% of Ceylon Tea is currently organic and the industry argues expanding this segment would require a much more gradual approach and should not be done at the cost of commercial bulk tea production.

Planters say the government banned imports of chemical fertilisers to protect its dwindling forex reserves, which Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage denies.

“The government is working to import the necessary organic material by the end of this month to distribute to farmers and producers. So there will be no major shortages,” Minister Aluthgamage said. “This shift to organic fertiliser was initially announced in 2019 and is not a response to Sri Lanka’s forex issues.” 

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