Lack of Fertiliser Casting Gloom & Doom Over Tea Industry
By Sulochana RamiahMohan
The tea industry is a significant foreign exchange earner, generating USD 1.3 billion per year, but the ban on fertiliser imports has resulted in a 40 per cent drop in yield, posing a direct threat to the tea industry. However, the Government has moved quickly to supply what it requires such as synthetic nitrogen with many plantations slated to receive it in due course, Ceylon Today learns.
The severity of having no fertiliser in the last couple of months will reflect in the tea produced in the first quarter of 2022, experts say. Although the Government aims to bring an end to agro chemicals, the ad hoc decision had a significant impact on tea bushes which require fertiliser at least three times a year.
Impact on tea crops
Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) Plantation Services Group Chairman and Hayleys Group Managing Director - Hayleys Group Plantation, Roshan Rajadurai said “from June 2021, tea began to lose its taste, colour and smell and the tea industry will eventually die with the death of tea leaves due to the on-going lack of fertiliser.’’
Timely and balanced plant nutrition has a direct impact on the tenderness of fresh shoots, vigour, chlorophyll content and desired chemical compounds in tea leaves that contribute to essential quality parameters on which a tea is assessed, viz., black appearance of made tea, colour of infused leaf, and tea liquor characteristics of the infusion such as colour, strength, quality, aroma and flavour.
To achieve physical and organoleptic quality parameters, it is critical to apply the recommended balanced fertiliser mixtures of the right quality and quantity, at the right frequency, dosage, method, and timing. He further emphasised that the tea leaf, as the only raw material in tea manufacture, gets its physical conditions such as succulence and tenderness to facilitate different stages of tea manufacture and its chemical characteristics that determine tea quality through balanced plant nutrition.
Lack of plant vigour makes plants susceptible to attacks by pests and diseases and to climate change effects, which have a direct impact on quality. Diseases such as blister blight and pest attacks from mites and tea tortrix not only cause significant crop loss due to their impact on harvestable shoots they also cause a significant reduction in important natural plant precursors that determine the quality of tea.
He added that the tea trade is almost 150 years old and at a time when there is a need to revive the industry, such drastic decisions can only cause further damage. ‘’After chemical fertiliser ran out of stock in June, no fertilisers have been sprayed on tea bushes and the tea leaves began to turn yellowish,’’ Rajadurai added.
Agrochemicals and organic inputs are required for vital plant physiological functions such as respiration, photosynthesis, water and nutrient uptake and distribution throughout the plant, growth and cell division, hormonal function, and to tolerate biotic stress from pests and diseases and abiotic stress from climate and weather related issues, he explained.
Nitrogen is the most important nutrient for tea bushes than any other plantation crop due to the vegetative nature of its harvest every six to seven days. Farmers started to look for chemical fertilisers as crops began to fail. Currently, there is also a scarcity of organic fertiliser. Tea is the only major perennial commercial economic crop that is widely grown in all three elevations, three rainfall zones and 14 districts with varying temperatures, rainfall, elevations, topography, and terrain, Rajadurai explained.
He alluded to the fact that many warnings about what could happen as a result of the ban on fertiliser had been delivered to the highest authorities on numerous occasions. Without the now-anticipated availability of plant nutrients and agrochemicals, the impact will be irreversible and beyond comprehension. According to Rajadurai, it is the Dimbulla Season, which runs from January to March, when tea commands the highest price in the global market, but the man-made disaster will have a significant impact on the annual revenue of USD 1.3 billion in tea trading.
The acclaimed American economist J.K. Galbraith stated that ‘’farmers rightly sense in the counsel of any man who does not have to live by the results of the consequences of such counsel’’. Planters and those engaged in plantation agriculture are now compelled to work in the industry based on the decisions and advice of those who don’t have to deal with the results of such advice.
The industry at a glance
Tea provides direct employment to over 600,000 people engaged in cultivation and processing and the industry further provides employment to another 200,000 people in the supply chain. Thousands of townships and village economies in tea-growing areas are completely dependent on the industry. It supports a resident population of one million through regional plantation companies and 450,000 tea smallholder operators; with a total 1.5 million population depending on tea.
Overall, it sustains more than 10 per cent of our national population and the net foreign exchange earnings are only second to the apparel industry. It is a total home-grown export industry, from production of raw materials to finished goods, and except for fertiliser and some agro-chemicals, all inputs are local, hence all the money earned is circulated within the country.
According to the estimate, Sri Lanka would have earned Rs. 260 billion from tea by 2020. Tea requires timely use of synthesised chemicals like fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, growth regulators, and concentrated fertilisers. However, plantation agriculture has always practiced Integrated Agriculture Management (IAM) since no agriculture can fully rely on either synthesised agrochemicals or organic inputs.
The plantations have carefully followed ecologically protective, environmentally sustainable, economically feasible, and ethically acceptable adaptation and mitigation techniques and practices under varying spatial, temporal, climatic, and geographical conditions. The IAM in plantations requires plantations to be financially viable, agriculturally productive, ergonomically practical, and culturally compatible within a holistic framework for sustainable plantation management.
The plantations have strictly complied with the minimum use of agrochemicals because of the global certifications, compliance, and conformance standards set out by global regulatory agencies and importing countries while conforming to the very exacting, stringent, and varying Maximum Residue Level (MRL) requirements required by all buyers.
As a result, the Sri Lanka tea industry is the most certified tea industry in the world with close to 300 RPC factories having more than 625 global certifications such as Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), Rainforest Alliance (RA), UTZ, GAP, Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), HACCP, Fair Trade (FT), Mother and Child Friendly Estates, Forest Stewardship Certificate (FSC), ISO 22000, ISO 9000 and many other environmental, sustainable and green certifications. Ceylon Tea has been declared the “Cleanest Tea” in the world by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and was the first to be certified as “Ozone Friendly Tea” in the world, with over 170 countries consuming our tea. Sri Lankan plantation companies have won Global Awards for Sustainable Environmental Practices regularly in the International Fora.
Tea plants require three macro/ major nutrient elements (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium), three secondary nutrients (Calcium, Magnesium, Sulphur) and 10 micro/ trace elements (Iron, Zinc, Copper, Boron, Manganese, Silicone, Molybdenum, Sodium, Cobalt, Chloride) with Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen.
All these essential nutrients are required in a timely manner at the correct dosages for vital plant physiological functions and crop growth. In arable soil, 50 per cent is solid and 50 per cent is aerosol, with only five per cent organic and 95 per cent inorganic compounds like Silicates, Oxides, Aluminium, Calcium, Iron, and other minerals.
The weight of soil in one acre to a depth of 6 in is 1 million kg. It works out to 15 million kg of soil to a depth of 3 ft in the root zone for one hectare. The addition of a maximum of 750– 1000 kg of inorganic fertiliser per year makes it impossible to bring about a dramatic change in soil composition. Without the addition of fertilisers, no soil in the world can continuously supply the full requirement of nutrients for the production of an economically significant crop yield.
As 20–50 harvestable shoots are removed from tea bushes every week, continuously for five years, any deficiency of essential plant nutrients will retard growth and development, eventually resulting in decreased growth, structural abnormality, and death of tea plants.
The Tea Research Institute (TRI) recommended fertiliser mixtures, after almost a century of trials and research, provide high nutritional value per unit of fertiliser, are available in highly soluble plant absorbable forms, and take into account correct nutrient ratios and other nutritional antagonistic and synergistic complexities of plant and soil. They provide plant growth-specific, seasonal, crop, soil, and site-specific formulations. They are precise, defined, and controlled with specific, needbased, and precisely targeted dosages with soil and leaf testing for specific purposes such as deficiencies and formative growth stages. Synthetic fertiliser is consistent without batch to batch variability, predictable in its response and has a reduced presence of undesirables in its formulation. It can correct specific plant and soil nutrient deficiencies fast, and its fertiliser efficiency is high.
It is easy for crop planning and all compounds in fertiliser mixtures are known and tested. There is no chance for unknown compounds, plant pathogens or soil-borne root pathogens to be incorporated in the process of manufacture. It has the ability to be used in spot applications and for any specific deficiency caused by foliar applications of micro nutrients, in particular.
Synthetic fertiliser is economical, cost-effective, and convenient for collection, transport, storage, and application and is available in the required quantities at the required time. Generally, a maximum of four workers per hectare are used for ground application of synthetic fertiliser and a maximum of 60–80 kg of Nitrogen per hectare is applied.
According to the validated research findings of TRI, loss without balanced plant nutrition is a 30 per cent –40 per cent loss of the crop. Furthermore, the Tea Research Foundation of India too has confirmed more than a 30 per cent yield loss.
Fertiliser recommendations and applications are highly complex undertakings and are the combined result of over 90 years of validated, painstaking scientific research and trials on fertiliser by the TRI, which has won global acclaim and recognition for its pioneering work in this area of research. According to the TRI, chemical weeding is the most convenient and cost-effective method among various techniques under Integrated Weed Management.
Herbicide spraying creates a mulch of dead weeds on the surface and improves water retention, adds organic matter and recycles nutrients removed by weeds. When manual weeding is done, weeds physically removed from the field carry away 32 kg of Nitrogen, 40 kg of Potassium and 320 kg of Carbon from the field, reducing the organic carbon and nutrients.
Rajadurai stressed that the Government’s banning of the universally used herbicide Paraquat in 2004 was solely based on the illogical reasoning that farmers ingested Paraquat to commit suicide. All other tea-growing economies competing with Sri Lanka still use Paraquat. The Government also banned the universally used herbicide Glyphosate in 2015 and restored it in 2019, again illogically based on the unproven, unscientific, false premise and hypothesis that Glyphosate was linked to chronic kidney diseases of unknown aetiology.
This has been proved wrong beyond any reasonable doubt by the findings of the World Health Organisation, several governmentappointed committees, tree crop research institutes, universities, and the Department of Agriculture, scientists, agriculture researchers, medical scientists, and nephrologists, in addition to the expert and experiential knowledge of agriculture professionals and practitioners.
Currently, Sri Lanka has only one recommended herbicide, i.e., glyphosate, and this too has not been available since June 2021. However, presently, plantations have been compelled to use only glyphosate as a systemic herbicide, and this is not a practical method to control a wide range of weeds found in the plantations. The “Gramoxone” ban in 2004 and the “Glyphosate” ban in 2015 have had an irrecoverable impact on the plantation industry. Since 2016, the Sri Lankan tea crop has been reduced to less than 300 million kg per year, from 340 million kg in 2016 to 279 million kg in 2020.
“We are using both organic and non-organic fertiliser for tea” - Nuwara Eliya DS In the meantime, Nandana Galaboda, District Secretary of Nuwara Eliya, believes that the country should transition to organic farming gradually. “The State’s recent policy to introduce organic farming has been implemented islandwide, and it has also been introduced to the Nuwara Eliya District, which is an agricultural area. Farmers primarily used both agrochemical and organic fertilisers, with chemical fertiliser being the most commonly used for tea,” he said.
He also mentioned that some tea estates use organic fertiliser. People have demanded chemical fertiliser, while others have demanded organic fertiliser, citing agrochemicals are causing environmental pollution, but according to the Government’s new framework, we need to shift to selfsufficiency by gradually shifting to organic farming. As the public outcry grew in response to the embargo, the Government decided to import 3.1 million litres of Nano Nitrogen fertiliser from India and 30,000 metric tonnes of potassium chloride from Lithuania.
These fertilisers were made of inorganic materials. Around 200,000 litres of nano nitrogen have already been flown to Sri Lanka, and it is expected to be distributed to tea estates as well. Further, Sri Lanka will be importing synthetic fertiliser that will be distributed to tea smallholders via factories. The Ministry of Agriculture has ordered 60,000 metric tonnes of ammonium sulphate for this purpose. According to the Tea Board, Russia purchases approximately 30 million kg of tea per year, but this figure is on the decline.
The Tea Board said that by September 2021, there would be approximately 27 million kg exported to Russia, compared to 29.3 million kg in 2020. Tea Commissioner Jayantha Edirisinghe ruled out a fertiliser shortage, but farmers and tea smallholders were able to use organic fertiliser to keep the produce whole. “There has been no decrease in tea production, and 15,000 metric tonnes of fertiliser has been distributed to low country plantations in accordance with the Tea Research Institute’s recommendation,” he said, refusing to state whether the fertiliser was organic or inorganic.