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Impending threats from alternatives

Impending threats from alternatives

By TA News Bureau:

An Indian researcher on rubber economy says the country is not prepared to face the market challenges posed by the natural rubber alternatives to Hevea brasiliensis. Globally – in particular in the United States and Europe – serious efforts are on to commercially produce NR from Parthenium argentatum (guayule) and Taraxacum kok-saghyz (Russian dandelion). While industrialised countries depend on Hevea grown exclusively in tropical countries, there is awareness that total dependence on such strategic material would undermine the interest of the importing countries. It is in this context that rapid advancements in the commercialisation of alternatives are progressing there. India, a major Hevea rubber producing country, is doing precious little to take on the challenges when competitive NR substitutes flood the global market, says Dr PK Viswanathan, Professor of Economics and Sustainability at the Kochi (India)-based Amrita University’s Department of Management

The question on alternatives to natural rubber (NR) is quite an interesting area of inquiry, which is still under infancy, despite several efforts that had been made earlier. Undoubtedly, NR is the unique renewable resource of nature, as rubber plantations are replenished in a cycle of 20-25 years. Though rubber has been found in the latex of over 2000 species of plants, Hevea brasiliensis remains the most important commercial source of natural rubber for reasons of high yield and low impurities. Given that the Indian rubber industry is dominated by the tyre manufacturing sector with a steady dependence on the NR content in its production process, the NR sector would continue to play a major role in sustaining the future of the industry. With EU tyre labelling becoming effective, there is a perception that the price of NR would go up from the current levels as there is no better substitute for rubber derived from Hevea brasiliensis for manufacturing passenger and light truck tyres.
That said, reports also reveal that the American and European tyre companies are increasingly experimenting with non-Hevea rubber, such as the Russian dandelions and guayule. However, it is still a matter of debate whether guayule would make a detrimental impact on the NR in the near future. Seemingly, though the alternatives to NR and synthetic rubber (SR) would provide useful avenues for research, it will remain a niche area with minimal scale of R&D attracting the same.
“In the emerging context when India’s NR sector is beset with major constraints affecting its competitive edge, I feel that the country’s capabilities to take on the challenges in the global NR market are very much limited,” says Dr PK Viswanathan, , Professor of Economics and Sustainability at the Kochi (India)-based Amrita University’s Department of Management.
“One of the important reasons for this is the structure of the industry characterised by near monopoly of the tyre industry with limited scope for the dominant small and marginal producers becoming the major stakeholders having a stake in determining the future of the industry,” says he.
He, therefore suggests, that the stake of the small producers should be enhanced through increased opportunities for value added product manufacturing. There should be a deliberate and strategic switch over to production of technically specified higher grades of rubber as happened in countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia.
“In a global context where efforts are made on reducing the ecological and environmental footprint by way of containing the degradation of natural resources and levels of greenhouse gas emissions, NR would continue to have the strategic and comparative edge over SR, he says.
The energy and cost intensity as well as pollution risks involved in the production of SR also give NR the much coveted credence as the sustainable raw material for the future.

Multifaceted challenges

That said, the sustainable future of the Indian rubber industry would call for concerted efforts on the part of the state as well as the industry to come together and address the multifaceted challenges confronting the sector by way of external market and trade risks as well as the internal production risks in the face of increasing shortage of skilled rubber tappers as well as the climate change induced losses in yield, asserts Dr Viswanathan.
The volatility in rubber prices especially in India’s post-economic reforms period is a matter of serious concern given the fact that this period also coincided with the phasing out of the protected price regime followed by the country since the beginning of the planning era.
The crisis in NR price in recent years pose severe constraints on the viability and sustenance of rubber cultivation as well as cause adverse effects on the adoption of improved agro-management practices by the small growers in India.
“At the same time, promoting rubber as a monoculture as it is done today will have greater consequences to agri-biodiversity as well as ecosystems in rubber growing regions in India, especially Kerala,” he says. This southern-most state produces almost 90 per cent of India’s NR output.
While there has not been any serious attempt from the state-owned Rubber Board to address this issue in terms of understanding the implications of this model of rubber development, it becomes quite essential in the emerging context that rubber be promoted as a cropping system with proper integration of food crops or vegetable crops, especially in the North East region and other new rubber growing states.
Such initiatives will have long-term positive benefit with respect to food security along with ecosystem integrity as well as a balancing effect against price risks of NR, Dr Viswanathan said.

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