NATURAL rubber is a world commodity. The material is highly sought after in the manufacture of thousands of consumer products. The major ones are tyres, medical gloves, bearings, fenders and many more.
The leading producers of natural rubber include China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries are members of the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries.
Malaysia, which at one time led the world in the production and export of rubber, is now in seventh place. Though the area planted with rubber is close to one million hectares, Malaysia’s production struggles to beat the 700,000 tonnes mark. Many areas are left untapped, not only because of a lack of labour but also because of low prices that have persisted for many years now.
At a recent meeting of the National Association of Smallholders that was addressed by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, issues plaguing the wellbeing of rubber smallholders were again raised. For many years now, the issues have remained the same: the low price for rubber, many untapped trees, ageing smallholders, high cost of replanting, labour shortage, and rubber farmers trapped in the low income bracket. The idea proposed by the PM at the meeting has also been raised many times in the past: merge the small areas, manage them like a cooperative, get professionals to handle the management, venture into the higher value downstream business.
So far, despite the obvious wisdom of the idea, such advice has either not been heeded or been judged by most people as too difficult to implement. Many years ago, Risda (the Rubber Industry Small-holders Development Authority) experimented with the mini estate approach. The result was disappointing.
A consistent supply of natural rubber is also a concern for the rubber products manufacturing industry. Even at the present time, the manufacturers of examination gloves have to import their raw material, a latex concentrate, from other countries, especially nearby Thailand. Malaysia has not produced enough quantities of latex concentrate for many years now, after rubber-growing by plantations saw a drastic decline.
Smallholders do not generally collect latex. They instead opt to collect their tapped rubber as “cup lumps”. This is naturally coagulated rubber in the tapping cups tied to the trees. Using such a collecting technique is less hygienic, often compromising the quality of the processed rubber. Poor quality is also an issue with product manufacturers, especially the tyre-
makers, who use more than 70% of all natural rubber produced.
There is no doubt that the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, has served the industry well all these years. It made important contributions to the country’s economy. Those were the days when labour was more abundant, plantations were dominating production, technology adoption was higher and cost was relatively lower.
What has happened in recent years includes the lower availability of labour, lower adoption of the latest technology, unselective planting materials, higher costs, and poor harvesting practices. The price of rubber, on the other hand, has not moved in tandem with escalating costs. The results are obvious: Disgruntled rubber farmers and tyre manufacturers asking for better quality.
At the rate the industry is operating, it may not be sustainable in the long term. The smallholders may eventually abandon rubber growing. The supply problems for manufacturers may worsen.
What the industry needs is a new production model. A model that adopts more automation, has better controlled costs, and assures better quality.
There are a number of options we can look at. The current rubber tree option can only be viable if there is automation in latex harvesting – something many have tried but have not succeeded in doing.
Another option is to explore other latex-producing crops that lend themselves well to automation. One crop which has undergone much testing in Germany is the dandelion. This crop, which grows as shrubs, is well suited to mechanised harvesting and processing. Quality is also better managed. Furthermore, farmers do not have to wait six to seven years to begin harvesting.
But the crop will first have to be tested for planting in this country. There may also be similar plants that we have not discovered. Research is needed here.
The other option is a longer term bet. This is deploying specially developed bugs to produce latex in a factory. It may sound far-fetched but with the current knowledge of biotechnology, it is not impossible either. Again we need research.
It is time for the nation’s rubber researchers to pay serious attention to a different production model for natural rubber.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM ,Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia