MANY of us consider natural rubber (NR) a sunset industry. This is exacerbated by the low prices of the commodity. The same is not true in Thailand, or Vietnam, though. NR production there is on the uptrend. Even Indonesia has kinder words about the economic potential of NR.
Diseases, including the Leaf Blight, are a serious threat to rubber trees. FILE PIC
Thailand is the world’s top producer of NR, followed by Indonesia and Vietnam. Vietnam is aggressively investing in NR. Other NR-producing countries, such as India and Sri Lanka, are not as downbeat as Malaysia on NR. They view NR as an important driver of economy, not only in the upstream sector but also in downstream manufacturing.
Unfortunately, here at home, NR, a crop that at one time was the darling of the nation’s economy, has been neglected. Only smallholders are holding the bastion of NR production in the country. The estate sector has severed its ties with NR.
But many believe the glory of NR will return to the country. NR still commands a major share of the global elastomer market. And the forecast is that the future will see an even higher share of the world rubber market.
There are reasons for this positive outlook for NR. The two major forces driving the change in world demand for NR are climate change and the growing preference for renewable materials.
On both counts, NR stands to outbid the other competing materials. The single largest competing material for NR is synthetic rubber, which is largely petroleum based. And petroleum is not only on a declining supply trend, but is also bad news for climate change.
In the global fight against climate change, the popular call is to phase out the use of fossil energy, including petroleum. However, since the alternative fuel is expensive, the phasing-out process is slow. This will change after the likes of solar and wind see improvement in costs.
Despite the positive outlook, NR is not without its share of challenges. Disease is getting more attention from the industry. We are, of course, reminded of the rubber disease that is prevalent in NR’s home country, Brazil. The South American Leaf Blight (SALB) was, in fact, the major reason why NR could not be propagated successfully in Brazil. Otherwise, instead of the Southeast Asian countries, Brazil would have been the largest producer of the commodity. Even to this day, stringent international quarantine procedures are in place to keep the disease at bay in major NR-producing countries.
However, there are concerns about new rubber diseases. Unless effectively contained, these diseases may be worse than SALB.
I was in Palembang, Indonesia, recently to attend an international forum to find solutions to the outbreak of a leaf disease attributed to the neofusicoccum fungus. Apparently, most of the rubber clones planted in the area are susceptible to this disease. Organised by the International Rubber Research and Development Board (IRRDB), in collaboration with the Indonesian Rubber Research Institute, the conference attracted rubber scientists and experts involved in the management of rubber diseases.
IRRDB secretary-general Dr Abdul Aziz Sheikh Kadir, an accomplished rubber disease scientist, warned that unless serious attention was given to the outbreak, the sustainability of the NR industry might be at risk. He proposed that a collaborative research partnership be formed among research and development institutes to tackle diseases in NR.
Experts believe various factors contribute to the alarming rise in rubber diseases. New data put the blame on climate change. We need more evidence to verify this claim. Others have blamed the cut in rubber fertilisation. The measure is rampant during the period of low rubber prices.
Undernourished rubber trees are susceptible to diseases. But the people who decide on such cuts may not realise that the costs to rid the trees of the diseases may be even higher. This is where a rethinking is needed to deal with rubber diseases.
Professor Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim is a Fellow at the Academy Science Malaysia, UCSI University, Kuala Lumpur