"It's like a powder keg," said Whitney Luckett, Simko North America L.L.C. president and founder of the U.S. office of Southland Rubber L.L.C., a Thailand-based producer of NR. "Right now everything is dry, so there are no problems. But when you mix together certain ingredients, it could explode."
Going back in history, the mono-clonal nature of natural rubber has proven tenuous. It came out of the jungles of Brazil, and out of many trees that were shipped to Malaysia, only seven made the trip, Luckett said.
"Most of the commercial rubber industry comes from a single clone, subject to climate change. And if a leaf blight ever made it to Southeast Asia, we are going to be up the creek without a paddle," she said.
As it stands now, demand can be met for NR in spite of supply line challenges.
"The earliest I can buy West African rubber for shipment is in early August," Luckett told Rubber News in late April. "That means a customer might receive it in October."
China is by far the world's largest consumer of NR at about five times what the U.S. uses, according to data provided by Simko.
Of the 12 million tons of NR produced globally in 2021, China consumed 5 million tons and the U.S. consumed 1 million tons.
On the production side, about 91 percent of the world's NR comes from Southeast Asia, about 6 percent originates in West Africa and about 2 percent comes from Latin America.
On the consumption side, Simko data shows that Asia eats up about 76 percent of global supply, with China at 40 percent. Europe and Africa are next at about 12 percent combined; and North, South and Central America are at about 12 percent for all three regions.
In the U.S., about 87 percent of NR goes to the tire industry; about 11 percent is funneled to distributors; and about 2 percent goes to the non-tire rubber industry, according to Simko.
Non-tire has almost no direct imports of NR and often a very limited list of approved distributors, according to Luckett.
"I agree that there may be dark skies on the horizon," said Tor Hough, managing partner with Elm Analytics L.L.C., based just outside of Detroit. "This may be a perfect storm waiting to happen, and it is not going to be fixable by brute force or overnight.
"The natural rubber industry is like a slow-moving freight train—it will take an enormous amount of energy to stop it and change it."
The world's largest tire manufacturers, academic institutions and international suppliers have been at the fore for the last decade-plus in attempting to address other sources of latex.
Bridgestone, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy, is making strides with the arid climate shrub guayule, while Goodyear and Continental A.G., with the assistance of the Department of Defense, are analyzing latex yields from dandelions.