By Dr. N.Yogaratnam
In the early 1950s, China decided that in order to secure its economic development, it needed to produce its own natural rubber. The Chinese government subsequently invested heavily in research on growing rubber in marginal environments and eventually established state rubber plantations in Hainan and Yunnan provinces, areas that lie as far north as 22° north latitude. China’s success in growing rubber in these ‘non-traditional’ environments greatly expanded the habitat in which rubber was perceived to be productive.
Today entrepreneurs from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand are investing heavily in rubber plantations in non-traditional rubber growing areas of Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well as in non-traditional rubber growing areas of their own countries—northwest Vietnam, and northeast Thailand. However, it has been documented that soil moisture increases with depth for agriculture and secondary forest, and decreases for rubber plantation. Also, soil moisture oscillations at the surface are mimicked in deeper layers for secondary and agriculture vegetation but are dampened with depth under rubber.
The overarching science question to be addressed by this proposal is: How will the expansion of rubber cultivation in non-traditional rubber growing areas of mainland Southeast Asia affect local and regional energy, water, and carbon fluxes, and what are the consequences of those changes for local and regional hydrology and carbon sequestration.
Focus on high productivity
High productivity must get top priority; equally important is increasing total production through area expansion. Traditional areas have no more area available for NR cultivation.
Non-traditional areas include parts of Low/ mid Country Intermediate and Dry Zones. Agro-climatic constraints for expanding rubber cultivation to various non-traditional areas need to be examined and cost of cultivation worked out.
Location-specific clones and farm practices including farming systems that take into account the local crops and nutritional requirement of the people should be developed. This is all the more relevant when we expand rubber to newer areas in the country which is essential if we have to bridge the gap between demand and supply of NR.
There has to be more emphasis on rubber technology, focussing on providing products and services to the processing and products manufacturing industry. Emphasis on basic science must always be with a conceptual link to applied research for tangible results in the field, both in the Agricultural and Rubber Technology streams (be it a smart clone or an intelligent tyre).
Several findings in Rubber Technology have not gone beyond lab-level demonstration for want of a collaboration with potential end-users, demonstration of the process at a scale which can be taken up by the industry for implementation and identification of developmental activities as per user needs. This deficiency should be addressed and findings in Rubber Technology should be converted into tangible products and services of relevance to the country through translational research
Climate change impact
It is estimated that rubber yield comes down by 10-15% for every degree rise in temperature. The extent of climate change and its impact on NR growth and productivity should be worked out and climate models should be developed for predicting future supply of rubber in Sri lanka and other rubber producing countries. Adaptation strategies and economic burden of adapting to climate change need to be worked out. Improved mechanisation and reduced tapping frequency are needed to reduce labour dependence in the NR sector. Satellite data can be used to identify and estimate the extent of agro-climatically suitable areas in the Low/Mid Intermediate/Dry Zones where rubber can be introduced with least conflict with present land utilisation and no impact on biodiversity in various parts of Sri Lanka or outside. Satellite data also can be used for estimating the probability of occurrence of climate stress in Sri Lanka or any rubber producing country.
Clones of the future
We should aim at developing ‘smart clones’ which should have high rubber and timber yields, faster growth and shorter gestation period, improved tolerance to diseases/pests, better adaptability to climate stress and are location-specific. Do not worship any particular breeding strategy, but select the one which can help to achieve the desired end-goal speedily and surely. Research should continue its clone-centric approach, but it should make use of molecular breeding techniques such as marker-assisted selection to shorten the breeding cycle and get more number of agronomically important genes into an elite clone. Further genetic improvement in Hevea (eg. Breaking the yield ceiling or pyramiding of multiple traits in one single clone etc.) may be difficult through conventional breeding/selection route.
Research should take up pilot-scale feasibility studies on alternative sources of natural rubber (Guayule rubber, Russian dandelion rubber, Ceara rubber). The latest technologies such as molecular technology, nano technology, information technology, GIS and remote sensing etc. should be profitably made use of for advancing scientific research in NR.
Mobilising science & technology
There are many areas where science and technology can be harnessed for the good of the rubber industry. They include setting up a Centre for Tyre Testing and Research and a Transmission Electron Microscopy Centre, Development of flex-resistant materials for critical dynamic applications in the automobile industry, setting up a Rubber Products Exhibition Centre (museum) and an Online Products Bank, automation in small scale, non-tyre low profit industry to avoid manual dipping, extrusion method for making good quality rubber bands to compete with imports and developing pilot scale rubber dam (removable check dams) for water harvesting/conservation. There has to be institutional/departmental-level interactions with the public and private sector establishments to identify products to be developed. A MoU with clear-cut milestones to be achieved has to be signed with them and a mechanism of joint review should be evolved. There has to be collaboration/outsourcing of minor part of developmental activities in selected cases (where necessary infrastructure and expertise are not available in-house) and scaling-up of processes developed in consultation with the user industry by setting up suitable processing facility.
No scientific or technological achievement will be sustainable unless the environmental cost is taken into account. Sociological and economic dimensions of rubber cultivation and allied activities should be assessed and projected appropriately. Long-term sustainability of rubber growing soils should be ensured. Energy, emissions, environment concerns should be addressed. Science goes to the grower and a two-way communication between scientists and Grower (or other stakeholders). These have to be ensured. As said by Dr Swaminathan, let our new slogan be: ‘Lab-to-land and land-to-lab.’
(The writer can be contacted via email@example.com)