The government will go back on its own ban and import 30, 000 metric tons of sulphate of ammonia which is a synthetic fertiliser, for use in tea cultivation.

The fertiliser is expected in the country in four to six weeks.

This will be only for the tea industry, said Ramesh Pathirana who is the Minister of Plantations. ‘It has been used in Sri Lanka for a period of time and is recommended for use by the Tea Research Institute (TRI).

The fertiliser will be imported by the private sector and distributed through the Tea Board of Sri Lanka.  There are several private companies that import fertiliser to the country.

According to Pathirana the supplier of this fertiliser has been providing it in the past too but he was unable to provide details.

The sulphate of ammonia is expected to be a substitute source of nitrogen to make up for its loss from urea, which the government has banned. Urea, which is recognized as a source of high nitrogen, has 46. 5 percent of it.  Sulphate of ammonia on the other hand has 25. 6 percent which is only half the nitrogen percentage in urea.  A double quantity of sulphate of ammonia will be needed to fulfil the plant’s nitrogen needs. Urea is also popular because it was cheap. But the price of urea in the world market has risen and the cost of both fertilisers are almost on par these days.

Sulphate of ammonia is a fertiliser that was in use in Sri Lanka but about two decades ago the TRI found that when it is added the acidity level of the soil went down. Urea was considered a better option. One way to remedy the imbalance is to add dolomite which is a mineral that is produced in the country.

A source from the TRI told Counterpoint that when the government consulted them in early May they gave them details about a plant’s nitrogen needs and the need for synthetic fertiliser. But the government went ahead and banned it anyway. ‘If sulphate of ammonia is going to be used the acidity of the soil will have to be monitored because it can reduce the quality of the soil’.

Agriculture experts see sulphate of ammonia as only a vacuum filler for the country’s chronicfertiliser crisis which is affecting not just the tea industry but agriculture in general, including rice farmers and fruit and vegetable growers.  The government ban earlier this year on synthetic fertiliser and agro chemicals including weedicides is linked to its election manifesto pledge to convert to organic farming in ten years. The government drive to make the transition happen almost overnight with no prior planning and preparation is seen as impossible by sector experts who predict a national food crisis and a hit on an already doomed economy when export crops such as tea get affected.

‘The government doesn’t have a concrete plan for agriculture’, said a leading academic.  ‘This is why it keeps changing policy day by day’.

With the ban beginning to bite, the authorities are desperately reaching out for alternative sources of nitrogen. Last week, for the first timein Sri Lanka’s agriculture history 45, 000 litersof nano nitrogen was airlifted from India.  Observers see it as a sign of how grave the situation is. This is the Maha season when paddy farmers sow their paddy and they have been protesting because they have not got the fertiliser for it. 65 percent of the country’s total paddy production is from the Maha season, which is also the rationale behind its name.  

The situation in the tea plantations is also getting worse by the day’, said Professor ArunaKumara who is a specialist in crop science at the Ruhuna University. ‘By the time the sulphate of ammonia reaches the country in December, there will be substantial damage to the tea bushes and a quick recovery can’t be expected’.

Nitrogen to a plant is what food, water and air is to a human.   The tea bush needs a continuous supply of nitrogen which it absorbs during its life cycle on a ‘needs’ basis to produce a robust leaf.  The hallmark of Ceylon tea is its unique taste and colour which is derived from the thickness and colour of the leaf.

‘At the end of the day what is needed is nitrogen and the cheapest source is urea which all other countries in the world use’, points out Professor Aruna Kumara. ‘Good quality synthetic fertiliser can be produced with next generation fertiliser and the mechanism to deliver it can be controlled’.  Giving free fertiliser to the farmer was also among the government’s election promises and last year it cost the Treasury 36 billion rupees for this subsidy.   Experts like Professor Aruna Kumara rationalize that if the subsidy is taken away the farmer can be paid a higher price for the produce.

Nitrogen deficiency will affect production and managers of tea plantations are already reporting a 30 -50 percent drop following the ban. ‘The data alone doesn’t tell the story’, said a director of a commodities public limited company. ‘It will be felt in the coming months.’  

It’s like a vicious cycle, explains one manager of a tea estate in Badulla. A drop in production will impact the tea smallholder who provides 65percent of the tea leaf to tea estates.  When the output is less it will naturally reduce the volume of tea that is available in the market and limit the buyers purchasing power. On the other hand, because of the increase in freight costs worldwide buyers are already holding back from buying large volumes of tea because they don’t want to stock it.

The ban on the use of agrochemicals parallelly with that of synthetic fertiliser is leading to tea lands being run over by weeds. ‘The government has banned the use of glyphosate and the weeds are turning areas that were cultivated with tea into jungle. The government has to give tea growers a solution to this ‘.

The innocuous tea leaf holds the key to the livelihoods of thousands of tea pluckers whose wage depends on the quantity of leaf which they harvest. A smaller harvest could mean a lesser wage.  

The knock- on effect of a drop in production is the increase to the unit cost and the overall cost of production. Even without, both Sri Lanka’s production costs and labour are among the most expensive in the world and a higher cost of production will compound the difficulties of the tea industry.  





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