Natural Rubber History

Rubber TreeIn the early 1920’s Stalin directed the Soviet agricultural community to find an alternative source of natural rubber to overcome dependence upon British colonies. A number of plants were identified but it was not until 1931 that a botanist identified TKS in the mountain plateaus of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Remarkably by 1940 Soviet scientists reported two dandelion varieties with roots weighing 25 grams and containing 15% rubber by dry weight. The Soviet program terminated by the end of WWII as most growing areas were destroyed and the promise of new synthetic rubber was on the horizon. From 1942 to 1945 the USDA conducted a feasibility study which included growing the crop in 28 states, developing a process for extraction of the rubber and production of tires for testing. Using Hevea-derived natural rubber as a standard, the investigations included Guayule, Parthenium agentatum, and Russian Dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TK). TK was demonstrated to be a viable source of domestically-produced natural rubber, compatible with associated rubber manufacturing process, comparable to Hevea, and superior to Guayule. The USDA Emergency Rubber Program was eventually terminated after liberation of SE Asian rubber producing areas from Japanese occupation.

Up until five years ago, natural rubber supplies have experienced temporary shortages and volatility but have generally been adequate. The current bull market in natural rubber continues as the economies in China, Easter Europe and the rest of Asia expand rapidly. Structural changes in the producer market (changing and new participants) create risk for supply as new producers are financially being supported by China which will provide China with priority access to available supply. This will likely ensure that the trend of US natural rubber users having no competitive leverage for this critical and strategic raw material will continue unless new sources of natural rubber are created.

The current global natural rubber market is 9.7 million tons and $20 billion US dollars. Worldwide natural rubber consumption increased 5.4% in 2007 while production remained flat as compared to 2006. Natural rubber prices have increased five-fold since 2001. It is forecast that demand will exceed supply in 2020 by approximately 15%.