ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s tea output could fall 40 percent in 2022 and rubber could be wiped out by leaf disease, threatening livelihoods and export revenues, if a fertilizer agro-chemical ban suddenly imposed this year is continued, industry officials said.
“In 2022, all experts estimate that we will record reduction in tea exports over 40 percent,” Bathiya Bulumulle, President of Sri Lanka’s Planters’ Association representing managers of commercial tea plantations and factories, who was re-elected for a second time said at its annual general meeting.
Severe Crop Losses
“With an immediate halt to use of fertilizer of agro-chemicals, the consensus is that there will be severe crop losses, and as a result, a reduction in export revenues by as early as the end of this year.”
Sri Lanka has banned imports of fertilizer saying 300-400 million dollars were spent on it a year and that agro-chemicals caused non-communicable diseases.
Sri Lanka’s central bank has been printing money, triggering forex shortages.
Sri Lanka’s Government Medical Officers Association, an influential policy driving body has said according to Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, ancient residents of the island lived for 140 years, before there were any agro-chemicals.
However, critics have said Pliny the Elder is likely to have been wrong and policy should be made on refutable science.
Over several decades Sri Lanka abandoned evidence-based policy making involving, green papers, white papers, expert consultation and finally public consultation which leads to a law to suddenly resorting to bans through executive action and gazette rule.
Up to now plantations companies are using fertilizer already imported to the country for tea. Crop losses have not been severe up to July, amid good rainfall though down from 2019.
“All this time we were managing with whatever the fertilizer issued by the government,” Bulumulle said.
“But it is too premature to tell what it is going to be. There may be a 30 to 40 percent reduction of crop maybe early next year when there is no adequate quantity of fertilizer given to tea.”
Sri Lanka exported 1.2 billion US dollars of tea in 2020 and 1.3 billion in 2019.
The government at the moment has introduced liquid nitrogen. However its efficacy compared to urea based fertilizer is not yet known, planters said.
Usually, Sri Lanka’s Tea Research Institute or Rubber Research Institute recommends fertilizer and application volumes after study.
Rubber is also hit by diseases and is under threat without adequate fertilizer.
“By the end of 2021, the industry expects an estimated 20 percent Year-on-Year reduction in output from rubber plantations due to this disease,” Bulumulle, said.
A leaf disease (Pestalotiopsis ) is spreading in the plantations. Already about 20,000 hectares are affected.
Rubber plantation experts have said it has reached an epidemic level.
“This disease results in continuous fall of tree leaves so the Rubber Research Institute has instructed us to give additional dosages of fertilizer,” Bulumulle explained.
Farms need fungicides, Carbendazim and Hexaconazole and also fertilizer to help the trees recover leaves.
“One of the key issues in addressing Pestalotiopsis is the lack of necessary fertilizer and the required agrochemicals,” Bulumulle said.
“Since rubber trees lose their foliage due to the disease, to compensate and provide extra nourishment for foliage re-growth, the Rubber Research Institute’s main recommendations is to apply additional inorganic fertilizer,”
The shortage of fertilizer is also going to hinder progress on replanting of rubber, given that the uptake of fertilizer is most crucial when rubber is in the nursery phase, Bulumulle said.
The planters are sounding the alarm, says this could be as bad as the “coffee blight of late 1800s” without fertilizer.
Sri Lanka was a prominent coffee producer in the late 1800s when a disease known as ‘coffee rust’ blight wiped out Sri Lanka’s coffee plantations in the late 1800s.
By next year, planters predict that if crop falls companies will not be able to provide work for the staff.
About 120,000 work in the regional plantation companies. Similar plight will fall on smallholders the PA warned.
“For replanting too, the entire industry – including tea smallholders – who account for over 70 percent of total tea production, need fertilizer for their nurseries,” Bullumulla explained.
“Without it, we cannot grow viable cultivars.”
Planters also said that once a market is lost, especially for tea, it cannot be regained. (Colombo/Sept30/2021)