Cultivating a second source of natural rubber in Australia

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A future where cotton and rubber coexist in the same crop may be on the horizon for Australian farmers.

Rubber is an essential industrial raw material, used in the manufacture of 40,000 products worldwide and primarily used in tyres.

Rubber for the production of manufactured goods is available in two forms: natural and synthetic. Synthetic rubber derived from petroleum accounts for about 55 per cent of the total rubber market. The balance is a natural product from plants.

Natural rubber possesses high performance properties that can’t be achieved by synthetic forms including resilience, elasticity, abrasion resistance, efficient heat distribution, impact resistance and malleability at cold temperatures.

Guayule (Parthenium argentatum) is a woody, perennial, rubber-producing shrub and a member of the daisy family. Under cultivation, guayule, (pronounced why yoo lee) a native of the Mexican desert and south-west Texas, grows to about 1.3 metres in height and requires two years to mature.

Guayule has previously failed to establish in Australia due to ample low-cost supplies of Hevea rubber from South East Asia, a sporadic approach to research, and a lack of access to appropriate processing technology. But that’s changing.

The Australian Guayule Industry Strategic RD&E Plan (2022-2027) has identified the research and development priorities for industry to implement over the next decade. Growing demand for natural rubber, and the finite production of Hevea rubber, means interest in guayule’s hypoallergenic qualities for latex production and benefits for the tyre industry is fast increasing.

“Identifying a novel, sustainable, renewable source of natural rubber with Guayule is an exciting prospect for Australia. Its potential uses, include tyres and latex gloves together with guayule co-products, for example as a high-energy biofuel, provides a potential diverse source of income from this crop,” said Dr Olivia Reynolds, Senior Manager, Emerging Industries AgriFutures Australia, said.

Seed supply crucial to grow industry

The goal of the Strategic RD&E Plan is to guide investment to support an industry that aims to grow and process 5,000 hectares of irrigated guayule for a range of profitable uses by 2027.

A guayule industry of this size is estimated to have a gross value of production of approximately $17.8 million – a gross income of $3,560 per hectare planted.

A recommended step in the RD&E Plan is to focus on securing seed supply for Australian farmers, a vital measure for the future of the industry, according to author of the plan, Michael Clarke.

“The industry needs a source of high-quality guayule seed for farmers to plant,” he said.

“The RD&E Plan’s priority recommendation is to work with researchers to secure a commercial seed supply to facilitate Australian guayule production”.

Complimentary to cotton

The agronomy of growing guayule in Australia isn’t a mystery. Australia has large-scale production and mechanised farms – guayule prerequisites.

The crop may be grown under dryland conditions and Australia has a large area of land with soils and environmental conditions suitable for guayule. Cereal-growing regions have been successfully used for dryland trials.

With a similar growing system to cotton but with less water requirements, and the existing cropping equipment already in use and able to be modified to grow and harvest guayule, Michael said guayule’s potential isn’t lost on growers – but its value hinges on its profitable abilities to extend to biofuel.

“Growers see potential in an arid climate perennial that requires little water once established,” he said.

“Success will depend on partnerships with well-resourced processors with ability to market a range of guayule coproducts such as very high energy biofuel.”

“The RD&E Plan provides structure for investment and confidence that guayule will realise its potential as an in-demand source of natural rubber with potential for a range of coproducts”

Find out more about the AgriFutures Australia Emerging Industries program

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