Sustainability groups are watching and reporting on the wrongdoings by businesses on this matter. Some of their actions, which can take the form of consumer boycott or even punitive trade legislative instruments, are damaging. The oil palm industry has been singled out for such punitive measures despite the many sustainability certification schemes that it subscribes to.
Logically, as the most productive of the 17 world edible oils, palm oil should be celebrated for sustainability. At a time when land for food is scarce, palm oil should be the darling of the world. While the fate of palm oil export as bio-diesel to the European Union still hangs in the balance, attention is now turning to natural rubber.
In Malaysia, natural rubber is second to palm oil as a major revenue earner for the nation’s smallholders in the rural economy. Almost 90% of rubber production is in the hands of smallholders, who are currently suffering from depressingly low prices and rising costs of production. Sustainability concerns will increase the pressure even more on smallholders.
A recent forum in Jogjakarta hosted by the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries (ANRPC) highlighted this issue. Big world tyre manufacturers, which take up almost 70% of the world’s natural rubber, are now insisting that rubber should be produced in a sustainable manner. There are signs that sustainability certification schemes similar to that for palm oil are being hatched for natural rubber, too.
How will rubber smallholders respond? Will they become disillusioned with growing rubber? What will happen to the rubber products’ manufacturing industry if there is less natural rubber produced? Is tyre manufacturing itself sustainable? Can the industry depend only on fossil-based synthetic rubber for their raw material?
The truth is the effects of synthetic rubber are much worse on sustainability since it is derived from fossil energy. Add to that the fact that there are products, for example aviation tyres, which are technically feasible only with 100% natural rubber.
In the case of natural rubber, and it is also true for oil palm, a major sustainability concern is whether smallholders, who make up a major percentage of producers, will continue to have the motivation and incentive to grow rubber.
At the moment, with prices hovering at the very low end of the range, many smallholders have abandoned rubber as a full-time venture. Most are now part-timers, and this does not augur well for productivity.
Adoption of the latest agronomic technologies is also showing decline. Low production means a low supply for downstream players like the tyre manufacturers. If tyre makers are truly interested in sustaining the long-term supply of rubber to feed their manufacturing plants, putting sustainability pressures on the producers is not the way.
They should instead consider investing in other options to support the sustainable supply of natural rubber. One is to pay producers a guaranteed reasonably remunerative price. That should help to sustain the smallholders’ interest in cultivating the crop.
Instead of forcing certification schemes on rubber smallholders, tyre producers should engage with and educate them to slowly but surely embrace sustainable practices in their farming methods. If done correctly, sustainability practices can also lead to higher productivity for the rubber growers, which is what they desperately need.
PROFESSOR DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow Academy of Sciences Malaysia