Sri Lanka’s organic food revolution threatens its tea industry | Culinary news

Sri Lanka’s drive to become the world’s largest producer of 100% organic food threatens its prized tea industry and raises fears of a wider agricultural disaster that could deal a further blow to the beleaguered economy.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has banned chemical fertilizers this year to start his organic race, but tea plantation owners predict harvests could fail as early as October, with cinnamon, pepper and staples such as rice also in the pipeline. difficulty.

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

“The ban has thrown the tea industry into complete disarray,” Gunaratne said at his plantation in Ahangama, in the hills 160 km south of Colombo.

“The consequences for the country are unimaginable. “

The 76-year-old, who grows one of the most expensive teas in the world, fears Sri Lanka‘s average annual harvest of 300 million kg (660 million pounds) will be halved unless the government changes course.

Sri Lanka is in the throes of a pandemic-induced economic crisis, with gross domestic product contracting by more than 3% last year and the government’s hopes for a return to growth have been hit by a news coronavirus wave.

Fertilizers and pesticides are among a host of key imports – including vehicles and parts – that the government has halted as it battles foreign exchange shortages.

Food security “compromised”

But tea is Sri Lanka’s largest export, grossing over $ 1.25 billion annually, accounting for around 10 percent of the country’s export earnings.

Rajapaksa came to power in 2019 promising subsidized foreign fertilizers, but did an about-face, arguing that agricultural chemicals were poisoning people.

Gunaratne, whose Virgin White tea sells for $ 2,000 a kilo, was pulled last month from Rajapaksa’s task force for a green socio-economy after disagreeing with the president.

He says the country’s Ceylon tea has one of the lowest chemical contents of any tea and poses no threat.

The tea harvest hit a record 160 million kilograms (352 million pounds) in the first half of 2021, thanks to good weather and old fertilizer stocks, but the harvest began to decline in July.

Sanath Gurunada, who runs organic and conventional tea plantations in Ratnapura, southeast of Colombo, said if the ban is upheld, “the harvest will start to collapse by October and we will see exports in earnest. affected by November or December “.

He told AFP news agency that his plantation kept an organic section for tourism but that was not viable.

Organic tea costs 10 times more to produce and the market is limited, Gurunada added.

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

He said Sri Lanka’s food security had been “compromised” and without foreign currency it “got worse by the day”.

Jobs at stake

Experts say the rice problem is also acute, as vegetable growers organize almost daily protests against reduced crops and crops affected by pests.

“If we go completely organic, we’ll lose 50 percent of the crop, (but) we won’t get 50 percent higher prices,” Gunaratne said.

Tea plantation owners say that in addition to lost income, a poor harvest would lead to huge unemployment, as tea leaves are always picked by hand.

“With the tea collapse, the jobs of three million people will be at risk,” the Tea Factory Owners Association said in a statement.

Plantations Minister Ramesh Pathirana said the government hoped to provide organic compost instead of chemical fertilizers.

“Our government is committed to providing something good for the tea industry, from a fertilizer point of view,” he told AFP.

Farmers say Sri Lankan cinnamon and pepper exports will also be affected by the organic campaign.

Sri Lanka supplies 85 percent of the world market for Ceylon cinnamon, one of the two main types of spice, according to United Nations figures.

Yet Rajapaksa remains confident in his journey, saying at a recent UN summit that he was convinced his organic initiative would ensure “greater food and nutritional security” for Sri Lankans.

He called on other countries to follow Sri Lanka’s approach by taking “the bold steps needed to sustainably transform the global food system”.

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