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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Sri Lankan tea industry is not a goose laying golden eggs but a disguised lame duck

Dr U. Pethiyagoda
It is claimed that this goose which has laid golden eggs for more than one and a half centuries, is currently the third largest foreign exchange earner, employs over 100,000 persons, contributes healthily to the GNP and occupies some 200,000 hectares of good land. Its pre-eminent position seems evident.

However, some features are troubling. An immediate paradox is that while it is said to be nationally profitable, most estates appear to report losses.

How, one wonders, could the whole exceed the sum of its parts? Rather like the global debt puzzle. Most nations display serious indebtedness . One sees no attempt to balance debtors and creditors.

Although common sense might seek to see this, economic punditry perhaps deems that such is unnecessary!

I am personally suspicious of derived data which does not disclose the source of its un-manicured figures. Significantly, quotes invariably speak of “foreign exchange earnings” and not profits. This I believe is key.

Several decades ago, the TRI (where I was employed) sought to determine the profitability of applying nitrogen fertilizers. To this end, an island wide study was made on the returns of made tea per unit nitrogen applied. The answer was, if I recollect correctly, 3.9 kilos of made black tea per kilo of nitrogen, or 2.5 kilos of Urea. This reassuringly confirmed what perceptive planters already knew as “rule of thumb”.

How would today’s profits from 4 kilos of tea compare with the price of 2.5 kilos of urea? Tea does not live by urea alone! Add the costs of other fertilizers, labour, other agrochemicals, energy, management and others that I may have omitted and the picture has to look grim.

Then take the sunk capital into land, facilities and factory , opportunity cost of the land occupied and the irretrievable cost of the soil eroded into the sea and the Golden Goose will begin to look like a Lame if not Dead Duck!

The agronomic situation is even worse. Most tea today grows on soils that are highly acidic with pH values in the vicinity of 4.0 to 4.5. Most crops do best on soils near neutrality – 6.0 to 7.0. Since pH values are on a logarithmic scale, a drop by a single unit means a 10-fold increase in acidity. Thus a soil at 6.0 is ten times more acidic than one at 7.0 (neutral). A soil at 4.0 is therefore a 1,000 times more acidic than a neutral one.

This has enormously important consequences for its ability to retain nutrients, organic matter and to support useful co-inhabitants such as earthworms and useful bacteria. Crops have different propensities for growing on low pH soils. On a scale of tolerance, tea happens to be about the last “useful” crop with increasing acidity. What this means is that once we pass over the brink, the options may only be coarse grass and Cactus!

As a remarkable example, Lee Kuan Yew in his book “Singapore story” relates how when he conceived the need to “green” Singapore, he saw that a Tropical island, exposed to heavy rain would have a heavily leached and acidic soil. He recognised the importance of correction. The first steps were therefore to apply lime heavily to make the soil palatable for the hundreds of species imported. He was primarily a student of Political Science from the London School of Economics but hugely perceptive!

In tea Estate practice, when replanting becomes due, the soil is “rehabilitated”. This was attempted by planting the uprooted land with a grass for generally, two years. Guatemala and Mana were the grasses of choice – mainly because they were otherwise “useless’ and therefore unlikely to be stolen by labour for their cattle. It was rather wishfully believed that two years of grass can rectify a hundred years of abuse.

Experiments tended to show that the practice was of no benefit to the succeeding tea. Naturally so. If the period under grass could be 25 years instead, the result may have been different.

In a more recent study, it emerged that when soil obtained from a tea field was compared with that obtained from a neighbouring ravine, the ravine soil was superior to the tea soil in all parameters that related to fertility – ion exchange capacity, water storage, percolation rates, compaction and so on. For some inexplicable reason, this important finding does not appear to have been followed up.

Some time ago, the Experimental and Estates Committee of the TRI noted with alarm, that several Low Country estates showed a marked decline in their initially high yields, which was not amenable to control by increased fertilizer inputs.

This should be no surprise but possibly means that tea has occupied the land long enough to destroy the fertility built up in decades under other crops or scrub It is also observed that tea lands, even in areas of heavy rainfall are virtually devoid of earthworms, who are known for over a hundred years as indicators of soil health.

In more precise studies, it was noted that silt collected from contour drains in tea fields analysed for nitrogen, levels not different from pure sulphate of ammonia. Studies also showed that there was virtually no conversion of ammonium to nitrate (bacterial nitrification) in tea soils

Five decades ago, Talgaswela group was a “Flagship” Estate. Record yields of some 4,000 pounds per acre were claimed. This was achieved through massive inputs of fertilizer and other agronomic practices. I understand that today, Talgaswela tea is virtually extinct and off the radar!

Organic matter (and soil binding properties) are dismally poor in tea land. Consequently, the World Bank concluded that the financial loss to the industry due to soil erosion alone was of the order of some Rs600 million annually. This is a real and irretrievable capital loss.

A noteworthy feature of British colonial policy was the encouragement of selected crops in their main colonies. Oil Palm in Nigeria, Cocoa in Ghana, Rubber in Malaysia and Tea in Sri Lanka are examples. They have certain common features. All are perennials with title use locally, with value addition accruing mainly through further processing (or blending) in the mother country. This clever device also ensured that perennial crops also encouraged perennial attitudes. Hence, 63 years after Independence, we continue basically to do the same things – with negligible innovations.

That the tea industry in spite of creating some problems (e.g those associated with migrant Indian labour) did a huge amount of good is undeniable (e.g the network of railways and roads). If this country, since Independence did nothing but build railways, it is moot whether we could have accomplished what perhaps took a decade or two!

The real point is whether the industry, in the light of present day conditions does not warrant an intense review – not only in economic terms, but environmental and agronomic viability as well.

The writer spent the last couple of years of his career at the TRI (1974/75) researching potential “other crops” that would perform on tea lands. Screening more than a hundred (crops and varieties) in the relatively hospitable conditions of Talawakelle, not that one held out much hope. Attempts to reduce soil acidity by applying large quantities of quick lime (the most drastic ameliorant) helped some crops but only marginally and temporarily. There was no justification for confidently nominating a potential successor. Forestry and long term grass cover could not be accommodated in the trials, but gut feeling suggests that they may be the only practical answers – but by no means “quick fixes”.

A lesson may be drawn from the Up-Country vegetable cultivators. Their activities are mainly in valleys protected from heavy erosion or leaching (in fact possibly benefiting from the leachings from the surrounding tea) They practise heavy liming and farmyard manure application. It is probable that pH levels are favourable for the range of crops they grow and rotate

For the foregoing reasons, I conclude that contrary to apparent majority belief, the goose that is purported to lay Golden Eggs is in fact a disguised Lame Duck.

My objective in presenting the foregoing is twofold. Whether desirable or otherwise, the tea industry is undoubtedly very important. I hope firstly, that the apparently grim and provocative prospect that I have plugged for the past four decades or so, will promote some with the interests of the industry at heart, to examine, reflect upon and hopefully, contest this pessimistic picture. Secondly, appreciating that some assumptions are possibly empirical, that researchers will undertake studies to refute them. I concede that many rely on possibly imperfect memories of nearly half a century ago.


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