THE INDISPENSIBLE HEVEA
Renowned plant breeder and former Deputy Director at the Rubber Research Institute of India, Dr. Mallinath Priyadarshan has been researching Hevea rubber for most of his professional career. He is a sought after expert in the areas of plantation management, breeding, supply chain etc. He has published scores of research papers in peer-reviewed journals. His magnum opus is the globally well-received second edition of Biology of Hevea Rubber published by Springer. The book, released in Singapore in the presence of rubber researchers, is a comprehensive tom on the origin, upkeep and latex harvest from the Hevea. It covers a whole range of subjects from propagation to the importance of Heterozygosis and molecular breeding focusing on the latest advancements on gene mapping, marker-assisted selection and stimulation. Latex from Hevea brasiliensis finds application in over 50,000 products. Excerpts from the interview with him:
TA News Bureau
The second edition of your book Biology of Hevea Rubber published by Springer is a comprehensive work for researchers and all those connected to rubber – be farmers, industry etc. Why do you think that Hevea brasiliensis, which produces latex that finds application in over 50,000 products that hold elasticity as an attribute, a strategic commodity?
Worldwide, the total number of automobiles available as on date is 1.2 billion that may rise to 2 billion by 2035. Around 30 % of a car is made of components in which natural rubber is involved. Crude oil price as on today is around US $ 52. This may further come down as China, the biggest car market in the world with 30 % stake on sales has decided to end fossil fuel cars to firmly deal with pollution. Electric Vehicles are already on the roads. Honda strives to make hydrogen cars. These are big deals. When one reads all these, even though the threat of synthetic rubber overshadowing natural rubber remains, NR always has an upper hand with its appreciable chemical and physical properties. The competition will be between one that is artificially made and the other naturally available. Yes, NR as a strategic commodity will continue with its stake. But I am sceptical. World changes rapidly, and with synthetic, natural rubbers and dumping of fossil fuel can make significant changes ahead. We have to wait and see what happens.
You have covered topics such as Heave’s origin, upkeep, latex extraction to breeding. What are the recent research breakthroughs that are aimed at enhancing the importance of Hevea as a commercial crop of great importance?
The mantra is to produce new clones for newer areas. There is no alternative for this. The task is arduous, but achievable with application of modern science. In addition to clone evaluation trials, scientists must indulge in the production of hybrid progeny. The question of reducing the breeding cycle is pivotal. Exercise selection of clones at juvenile phase. Only option is to exercise juvenile selection high yielders from among hybrids through transcriptome analysis. Molecular techniques like subtractive hybridization can also help to define tapping panel dryness.
A major criticism that is being raised by some researchers is about the environmental damage and its impact on climate change following widespread deforestation to grow rubber crop. How will you address these concerns? Do you suggest a much more science-backed strategy to sustain the present momentum of growth in rubber plantations and rubber output?
Many countries are expanding rubber area. Vietnam’s target for rubber development is 700,000 ha or even more. Cambodia granted permission to expand its plantation into Kampong Thom Province through clearing over 6,000 ha of forests. Collectively, more than 1,000,000 ha of rubber have been planted in the last several decades in non-traditional rubber growing areas of China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Swidden – also called shifting cultivation – has long been the dominant farming in Mainland Montane South East Asia (MMSEA). Today, the ecological bounty of this region is threatened by the expansion of settled agriculture, including the proliferation of rubber plantations. In the current conception of REDD+ (United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), landscapes involving swidden qualify almost automatically for replacement by other land-use systems because swiddens are perceived to be degraded and inefficient with regard to carbon sequestration.
The competition will be between one that is artificially made and the other naturally available rubber. Yes, natural rubber as a strategic commodity will continue with its stake. But I am sceptical. World changes rapidly, and with synthetic, natural rubbers and dumping of fossil fuel can make significant changes ahead. We have to wait and see what happens
A deeper and more systematic analysis of the multiple consequences of these policies is consequently necessary for the design of successful REDD+ policies in MMSEA, and other areas of the developing world. REDD+ policies should be structured not so much to ‘hold the forest boundary’ but also to influence the types of land-use changes that are occurring so that they support both sustainable livelihoods and environmental services, including –but not limited to– carbon.
Your question on a much more science-backed strategy to sustain the present momentum of growth in rubber plantations and rubber output is very relevant and must be discussed deeply, before expanding rubber cultivation to newer areas.
Rubber plantations provide livelihood to millions of farmers in Asia. What are your suggestions to improve the quality/quantity of latex output that can earn decent incomes for farmers and workers? What kind of market mechanism will you recommend to ensure a steady income to farmers, tappers and other depending on rubber plantations and avert hurtful market volatility?
A small holding should have all crops: annual and perennial. One can have vegetables, flowering plants, rubber, fruit trees and even medicinal plants. Such kind of activities include soil management, water use protection, crop nutrition, crop health and protection. If animal husbandry is involved, related activities like biogas production could sustain oneself. Such farmers do not go to market to procure their needs.
Strictly, twice tapping/week must be adopted, if not weekly tapping. The need to give rest for the tree is imminent. Practice organic farming. No use of chemical fertilizers. We lack studies on plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria, arbuscularmycorrhizal fungi and endophytic bacteria. Such microbes colonize in plant roots and induce plant growth. Research needs to be focused on these aspects.
Rubber is becoming or has become a small holder’s crop. A planter with 400 trees without any additional labour can sustain himself with the crop. How to pay the exorbitant wages if the rubber prices are not getting increased? Several experiments on mechanized tapping knife are in store. Let us wait and see what happens.
The mantra is to produce new clones for newer areas. There is no alternative for this. The task is arduous, but achievable with application of modern science. In addition to clone evaluation trials, scientists must indulge in the production of hybrid progeny. The question of reducing the breeding cycle is pivotal
(This is the first of a two-part interview with Dr Mallinath Priyadarshan. The concluding part will appear in the April-May 2018 issue)