The South American leaf blight is going to destroy the natural rubber industry and end life as we know it. I know this is true because I read about it in a recent Fortune magazine article. If it's in Fortune, it must be true, right? Yes, I'm being somewhat facetious.
I've never been partial to scare talk. It's easy to claim something awful will happen by citing selective evidence, no matter how remote the possibility. This, of course, is the bread and butter of politicians. Say it loud and often enough, and the public might just buy it.
If nothing happens, the fear-monger can merely say “wait ... it's still coming,” or just let it slide. At least in this country, our collective memory is short.
The threat of the Microcyclus ulei fungus ravaging the Hevea brasiliensis trees of Southeast Asia has existed for more than a century. The leaf blight killed off the South American NR business, including a Goodyear plantation and Henry Ford's famous Fordlandia experiment.
The main problem is all those NR trees in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia trace their origin to the seeds Henry Wickham smuggled out of Brazil in 1875. Meaning all Hevea brasiliensis trees are at risk.
The Fortune article, boldly headlined, “How the Leaf Blight Could Destroy the Economy,” repeats the fear that pops up every few years. The reasoning seems sound, primarily that the way Hevea trees are planted in Southeast Asia—tightly packed together—means the fungus would spread like wildfire.
A case also is made that the quarantine to keep the fungal infection out of Asia is doomed because of globalization—it's too difficult in this day and age to prevent it from migrating to the region.
I've heard it all before. In fact, Fortune cites an article from 1995 warning of the same thing. A noted scholarly book made the same point in 2011.
Is leaf blight a danger to the world's NR supply? Sure. Is it more of a danger now, is it “inevitable,” as was declared by a source in the Fortune story? Eh, that might be pushing it.
Last I looked, Ebola didn't destroy America, despite the ravings of 24-hour TV news when some health care workers contracted it. TV got lots of viewers with that story, and some politicians made hay with it. Call me a skeptic.
This latest incarnation of “the sky is falling” concerning Hevea seems to be encouraged by guayule proponents. Cooper has been bragging about making some decent tires out of guayule rubber, PanAridus has had successful development with the native desert shrub, and Yulex has done well with non-tire applications of the material.
This is all good news. I, too, would love to see a North American guayule industry finally take root. People have been trying to do that for more than 100 years.
But you don't need to spread leaf blight panic to enhance guayule's potential. It already has plenty.
Noga is a contributing editor of RPN and its former editor. He can be reached at [email protected].