From shoe soles, refrigerators, to clothes, car tires, and medical supplies, natural rubber is a common denominator that keeps the quality of these products at their best.
Rubber is a raw material that plays a critical role in our daily lives. However, climate change, capitalism, and diseases pose major threats to the rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) around the world. Sadly, rubber is part of the European Union’s list of critical raw materials.
The demand for rubber soared amid the pandemic due to the large number of people buying cars (a product with the largest share in the rubber market) that links to the fear of riding public transport.
Rubber also plays a vital role in this pandemic since it is involved in personal protective equipment, gloves, and other equipment used by medical practitioners.
Most supplies of natural rubber are produced by smallholder farmers in tropical forests. Losing the remaining resources can cause significant damage to biodiversity.
Here are the factors that contribute to the threats of rubber shortage:
Diseases. In Brazil, rubber trees are no longer produced commercially due to South American leaf blight, a fungal disease that destroyed the industry in the 1930s. But this does not happen in Brazil alone. Globally, many farmers encounter diseases in their plantations that make it hard for them to produce more rubber.
Climate change. As drought and flooding worsens, it has also become a challenge for rubber producers to deal with its consequences.
Prices. Despite the increasing demand, prices of rubber remain low. This pushes farmers to over-tap the trees so they can get more supply. The exploitation, however, makes rubber trees more susceptible to diseases.
The market situation has urged many farmers to stop their businesses. Many are also discouraged to plant new rubber trees, while others transition to selling timber instead.
Reforestation or planting more rubber trees can contribute a lot to fight this rubber crisis. It usually takes seven years before the trees become ready for tapping. Therefore, planting rubber today can be crucial in preparation for what may happen in the future.
Researchers are now looking for plants that can substitute for rubber trees including guayule (Parthenium argentatum), a shrub that is said to have similarities to natural rubber.