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Organic Tea Makes Inroads In Sri Lanka
The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal / April 2009

By Larry Luxner

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — When it comes to tea exports, Sri Lanka ranks among the world's undisputed leaders. But few people know that this island also gave birth to the world's first certified organic tea garden.

Idulgashinna, located in the Uva region of eastern Sri Lanka, earned that distinction in 1987, when Stassen National Foods Ltd. inaugurated the garden in collaboration with German entities Gepa Ltd., Naturland and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Idulgashinna, at an elevation of 1,000 to 1,900 meters, prodduces both black and green premium-quality teas.

Venture, Stassen's second organic tea garden, is situated in the Bogowanthalawa Valley in Sri Lanka's Dimbulla region at an elevation of 1,100 to 1,300 meters. This estate is renowned for its premium-quality organic black teas, rich in flavor and color.

The two tea gardens together cover about 600 hectares, while a third organic tea garden now in the planning stages will add another 300 hectares — meaning that by 2010 Stassen alone will have 900 hectares of organic tea (of the 17,000 hectares of tea it has under cultivation in Sri Lanka).

"We've been doing organic tea for over 20 years," says Harry Jawayardene, CEO of the Stassen Group, one of Sri Lanka's largest business conglomerates. "We were the first in the world to turn a conventional tea garden into an organic tea garden, and it has been 100% successful."

Considering the size of the company Jawayardene heads (last year's sales exceeded $600 million), it's a wonder he even has time to think about organic tea.

Stassen's annual production of 375 metric tons represents only 1.6% of the 23,000 tons of tea his company shipped overseas last year, making it Sri Lanka's second-largest tea exporter after Akbar Brothers Ltd. And tea itself is just one of Stassen's many interests; the Colombo-based conglomerate also has interests in manufacturing, banking, insurance, logistics, air transportation, hotels and alcohol production.

Yet tea obviously has sentimental value to Jawayardene, who started the company in September 1977 as a tea exporter and eventually branched out to other areas.

"The use of chemicals and fertilizers has been shown to cause more and more diseases, and the World Health Organization has realized that these artificially grown things are harmful to health," said Jawayardene, interviewed in his seventh-floor office of the Sri Lanka Insurance building overlooking Colombo.

"If you put a handful of urea into a banana stem, it will grow to be three times the size of a normal banana — but tasteless," he told The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal."If you give chicken artificial steroids, it will become the weight of a one-year-old chicken in six months. Research has confirmed that this is harmful. So we were proved right."

At present, Sri Lanka exports around 1,000 metric tons of organic tea, out of a total 325,000 tons. But of that 1,000 tons, Stassen's Idulgashinna and Venture tea gardens account for 375 tons.

"It used to be 500 tons, but that's going down because the yield is low," explained Jawayardene, who has a framed portrait of himself and his son Hathita posing with former President Bill Clinton.

"There are lots of fake organic teas being produced in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya and China. We are seeing them at fairs," he explained. "We know they're fake because you cannot do a tea garden overnight. Just because you stop the application of fertilizers doesn't mean you can call that garden organic. You must follow organic ethical agricultural practices. It takes three or four years to convert a tea garden to organic."

Jawayardene said his company uses organic fertilizers in the form of natural fishmeal, fish cake, natural oilcakes and compost. The plantations are inspected annually by Switzerland's Institute for Marketecology (IMO) and certified by both Naturland and Australia's National Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

"We must insist that our plantation for organics is the purest of the pure, and that it uses 100% proper agricultural practices — unlike others that call themselves organic but mix with conventional tea," he said. "Our competitors have better yield because they're mixing, but they don't tell the consumer that."

Jawayardene said his organic tea projects ensure soil fertility through composting and vermiculture. Leguminous plants planted beside the tea bushes also provide vital nutrients. Soil erosion is prevented through contour planting, manual weeding, cover crops and mulching.

He added that "while it's true some other companies are doing organic tea, they're much smaller than us. There's a ready demand for organic tea, and we want to reduce the number of plantations. We are also trying to change from black to other areas; that's why we started green and oolong tea."

Deepal Chandrasekera, a consultant for Imperial Teas Ltd., said organic tea represents less than 1% of Sri Lanka's total tea production. "We have very limited production. Once upon a time, it was a growth segment. But in 2007, the demand became static," he said, noting that the certification process is very costly — a factor that makes organic tea 10-15% more expensive than regular teas.

Certified-organic tea does have its skeptics here in Sri Lanka, among them Anselm B. Perera, managing director of Mlesna (Ceylon) Ltd.

"In my opinion, all teas from this country are organic, in the sense that there is no poison or toxic material in the teas we export. They are all fertilized in the normal, traditionally accepted methods. We don't use genetically modified products," Perera told us.

"In Sri Lanka, we are pesticide-free. If you use leaves or cow dung or compost, then you're generally limited to only one type of fertilizer. It's like feeding a child with only one type of food and asking it to grow," he said. "I'm not against the idea, it's just there's a whole community out there who's fanatic about organic. They think everything else is poisonous."

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