Rubber Crops Might Be Liquid Gold

Edison, Firestone, Ford and Rockefeller, the giants of industry and invention, believed one crop could rule them all—natural rubber. Industrialization, subterfuge and war couldn’t give rubber a crop foothold in the U.S., but latex-producing plants are making a comeback thanks to the muscle of genetic breeding.

Natural rubber is a titan’s playground, with U.S. market value upward of $40 billion each year. A mere crumb from the table could bring windfall profits to U.S. farmers if they can gain entry to the rubber realm.

In 1876, Henry Wickham emerged from the Brazilian jungle and steamed to London with a cache of pilfered Hevea seeds, setting off a seismic shift in global rubber production. The rubber tree seed escape essentially destroyed the Amazonian rubber boom, and Wickham’s pods became the foundation of Southeast Asian production, which still dominates the rubber market for now.

Tropically grown Hevea trees will never flourish in the U.S. However, the future of U.S. natural rubber production is in sunflowers, guayule and Buckeye Gold dandelion. Katrina Cornish, an Ohio State University research scholar and endowed chair in bioemergent materials with the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, believes rubber crops are destined for major U.S. acreage and will become part of typical crop rotations.

Sunflowers: Edison Agrosciences is using biotechnology to increase the concentration of natural rubber in sunflower leaves and agronomics to increase the amount of leaves per unit land area. “Sunflowers produce between 1% and 2% natural rubber in their leaves, but we’re going to have a major increase through biotech,” says Tom Christensen, CEO of Edison and Ag TechInventures, an innovation lab where Edison is a portfolio company.

The rubber in sunflower leaves isn’t harvestable as latex but instead exists as particles within leaf cells. Edison is testing genetic and agronomic mechanisms to stop flowering and boost biomass growth. Seed heads are removed early in development to allow for more rubber production in leaves.

Sunflower rubber has a significant advantage compared with other new crops because farmers understand how to manage the crop.

Edison will have a substantial portion of its research and development program in field plots this year and expects to have a commercial pilot in the field by 2019 with several thousand acres of sunflowers for rubber.

When it comes to the rubber value chain, Christensen doesn’t know if we could repurpose already existing extraction facilities or if they’d need to be built from the ground up.

Sunflower rubber can be grown in a broad range of climates. As a 90-day crop tolerant to drought and heat, Christensen hopes to take sunflowers into empty rotations south of traditional growing areas in the northern plains. “We’re increasing the amount of rubber sunflower in order to create an economic crop that can be grown in a number of climates in a short period.”

Guayule: A rubber-producing shrub, guayule is native to southwest Texas and northern Mexico. It has tremendous promise and is further along in development than sunflowers or Buckeye Gold dandelion. Bridgestone has invested $120 million in a research farm and processing plant in Arizona.

Guayule’s enormous advantage? It does not cause latex allergy and brings a price premium. In storage, Hevea latex begins deteriorating at six months. Solid guayule rubber can be stored as bales and remains stable for several years, Cornish says.

Low-input guayule offers phenomenal latex value for growers, she adds. “If you compare production with latex value, I’m talking about $500,000 per acre for surgeon gloves or $300,000 for condoms. That means plenty of money for the farmer, processor, manufacturer, investor, retailer and others.”

Mike Fraley, CEO of PanAridus, is at the forefront of guayule production. PanAridus guayule varieties mature in 16 to 18 months, with annual crops thereafter, compared with Hevea trees, which take six to eight years. Hevea plantations typically yield 1,700 lb. per acre, but some of Fraley’s varieties are beating the Hevea average.

PanAridus contracts with Arizona growers at a measured pace to fit the extraction process and market. Fraley insists on walking before running. “We first show the ag community the product value and then we’ll contract big acreage,” he says. “We have enough seed for 100,000 acres right now.”

PanAridus relies on its genetics and processing for quality and depends on growers for tonnage. “That dog doesn’t hunt about demanding quality from growers because it’s our responsibility. Guayule is going to work for significant grower profit,” Fraley notes. In addition to rubber, PanAridus is aiming to use 100% of the guayule shrub, through high-value resins for adhesives, fragrance and flavor, and bagasse for biofuel and building supplies.

The U.S. market demands 1.2 million metric tons of natural rubber per year, and virtually every pound is imported. PanAridus wants to meet 15% of U.S. consumptive needs with 160,000 to 180,000 guayule acres within a decade. “I’ve worked with corn and cotton, but guayule is the most exciting crop species I’ve ever encountered,” Fraley says.

Buckeye Gold dandelion: Latex is stored in the dandelion taproot. “Rubber crops have to fit in with existing agronomic systems. With Buckeye Gold, a slight modification on a carrot harvester is a change farmers will make,” says Colleen McMahan, lead scientist on domestic natural rubber for USDA–Agricultural Research Service.

Buckeye Gold is being commercially tested on farms under irrigated and dryland conditions where common dandelion is present. In areas with a short growing season, Buckeye Gold can overwinter and handle a hard freeze. Natural rubber crops failed in the past, but McMahan points to the game-changing factors of genetic breeding and sustainability demand. In addition, Buckeye Gold carries a one-two punch, producing a highly desirable (inulin) food product used by diabetics. “There are economic blocks, but breeding improvements are incredibly fast,” she adds.

The Southeast Asia rubber industry’s catbird seat has worn wobbly. Trees are cut and weeping latex is collected in buckets in a labor intensive system. Southeast Asia’s Hevea trees are highly susceptible to South American leaf blight, which has decimated rubber trees in Brazil.

“The world economy is headed for a massive rubber shortage,” Cornish warns. “We need our own major acreage ready when the shortfalls hit.”

Globally, 12 million metric tons of natural rubber are produced each year. “We’re headed to 20 million tons very soon, and in 30 years we’ll be needing 30 million,” Cornish says. “Where’s it going to come from? Not the Hevea rubber tree. We’d better be growing it right here on American farmland.”

Source: Chris Bennett, Farm Journal

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