COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's drive to become the world's first 100-percent organic food producer threatens its prized tea industry and has triggered fears of a wider crop disaster that could deal a further blow to the beleaguered economy.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned chemical fertilizers this year to set off his organic race but tea plantation owners are predicting crops could fail as soon as October with cinnamon, pepper and staples, such as rice, also facing trouble.
Master tea maker Herman Gunaratne, one of 46 experts picked by Rajapaksa to guide the organic revolution, fears the worst.
"The ban has drawn the tea industry into complete disarray," Gunaratne said at his plantation in Ahangama, in rolling hills 160 kilometers south of Colombo. "The consequences for the country are unimaginable."
The 76-year-old, who grows one of the world's most expensive teas, fears that Sri Lanka's average annual crop of 300 million kilograms will be slashed by half unless the government changes course.
Sri Lanka is in the grip of a pandemic-induced economic crisis with gross domestic product contracting more than 3 percent last year and the government's hopes of a return to growth have been hit by a new coronavirus wave.
Fertilizer and pesticides are among a host of key imports - including vehicles and spare parts - the government has halted as it battles foreign currency shortages.
But tea is Sri Lanka's biggest single export, bringing in more than $1.25 billion a year - accounting for about 10 percent of the country's export income.
Rajapaksa came to power in 2019 promising subsidized foreign fertilizer but did a U-turn arguing that agro chemicals were poisoning people.
Gunaratne, whose Virgin White tea sells for $2,000 a kilo, was removed last month from Rajapaksa's Task Force for a Green Socio-Economy after disagreeing with the president. He said the country's Ceylon tea has some of the lowest chemical content of any tea and poses no threat.
The tea crop hit a record 160 million kilos in the first half of 2021, thanks to good weather and old fertilizer stocks but the harvest started falling in July.