Natural rubber is recognized as an essential material for the manufacture of tens of thousands of consumer, medical, and industrial products. There is a need for a rubber crop that will both increase natural rubber production and expand production to new geographies. Edison will use its integrated suite of technologies, including proprietary rubber pathway engineering technology, to increase the levels of rubber production in sunflower, creating a new, commercially viable rubber crop.
The US is dependent on imported natural rubber largely from Southeast Asia, which produces over 90% of the world’s supply. The rubber market is valued at over $100 billion annually with natural rubber having a share of about 42% or over $42 billion. Natural rubber has performance characteristics that have not been duplicated by synthetics making it impossible to replace in many applications. Natural rubber is a strategic product in that it is not possible to produce engines or vehicles without it. The rise of the global middle class and their desire for cars and other manufactured goods containing rubber is increasing the demand for rubber even during the recent economic slowdown. In its report on natural rubber, EPOBIO predicts supply will lag demand by 25% in 2020.
While the uses of rubber are diverse and span many market segments, consumption of rubber is dominated by tire manufacturers, which consume approximately 70% of the natural rubber produced. The leading tire manufactures have recognized the market dynamics and the significant risks surrounding rubber production. These companies support the development of new rubber crops and have made investments to advance alternative crop development and source rubber from substitute crops.
The major barriers to increasing natural rubber production sufficiently to meet rising demand are the result of fundamental limitations in the current production system. Commercial natural rubber production employs a single crop species (Hevea brasiliensis, Brazilianrubber tree) with a restricted growth range due to its strict environmental requirements with respect to temperature and moisture. Key limitations and vulnerabilities for rubber production in South East Asia include: (1) susceptibility to disease caused by South American Leaf Blight, a pathogen that eliminated rubber production in Brazil early in the 20th century and remains a global threat today; (2) long time-frames for crop development through breeding due to low genetic diversity and the extended periods of time (5 years) needed for rubber trees to reach production maturity; and (3), lack of mechanical technologies for rubber harvesting which poses major challenges for this crop; rubber harvesting is entirely dependent on low cost manual labor.
Edison Agrosciences is developing a solution that will address these challenges and take advantage of this growing market.