The Russians are coming

Field studies are under way to see if a foreign weed—a dandelion—could become a source of rubber and cash
Cynthia Reynolds
The Russians are coming
Jim Todd/OMAFRA; Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Stephen Gregory

In southwestern Ontario, in the middle of farm country, there’s a field that appears to have a major weed problem—but they’re not your typical garden-variety weeds. They’re Russian dandelions, and scientists believe they hold the answer to a seldom-discussed problem: the mounting worldwide shortage of natural rubber, a material that comes from a single tree (the Hevea brasiliensis—a.k.a. the Brazilian rubber tree), grown almost exclusively in one region (Southeast Asia), and which is crucial to our tire market. “We don’t view it as a strategic commodity like oil,” says the University of Guelph’s David Wolyn, one of a handful of Canadian scientists working to create natural rubber from the dandelions. “But there are 800 million cars on the road. Where’s all that rubber going to come from?”

The rubber-bearing properties of the Russian dandelion—which is actually endemic to Kazakhstan—have been known to Western scientists since the Second World War, when the U.S. was forced to search for an alternative source of rubber after the Axis powers seized control of the world supply. While synthetic rubber proved a useful substitute, it didn’t have the necessary chemical properties to completely replace natural rubber in tires, and it was entirely unsuitable for the heavy-duty tires of large vehicles, such as airplanes and military transports. (The general rule remains today: the larger the tire, the more natural rubber it requires.) However, research showed that the rubber fibres contained in the roots of Russian dandelions could serve as a viable—and domestic—alternative for these critical applications. When the war ended, the cheap source of rubber became available again and the science was shelved.

Now, precarious conditions affecting this US$20-billion market have hastened the retrieval of that decades-old research. Rapid development throughout China and India has caused demand for natural rubber to spike. Not only is supply failing to meet demand, it’s shrinking, as rubber farmers switch to more economical crops, particularly palm oil trees, and skilled rubber tappers migrate to the cities. Scientists also suspect climate change is altering growing conditions in Southeast Asia, resulting in poorer rubber harvests. As natural rubber prices have increased fivefold over the last decade, reaching an all-time high this April, and analysts estimate the global stockpile of tires at just 69 days’ worth of demand, efforts to cultivate the Russian dandelion are energizing. “It’s the best candidate we have to replace the Hevea tree,” says an industry expert who works with Penra, a U.S. consortium of scientists studying the dandelion and funded by government agencies and corporations such as Ford and Bridgestone. “It’s entirely feasible it can satisfy the North American market.”

Whereas the U.S. considers natural rubber a strategic resource, in Canada, “it’s not on the radar,” says Guelph’s Wolyn, a plant breeder who received a $143,500 community development grant to begin improving the dandelions’ rubber yield. He’s planted 2,000 seeds obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Kok Technology—a dandelion-rubber processing upstart in Vancouver—and the plants are currently growing at the university’s test field. In the fall, he’ll select the plants that contain the most rubber and transport them to a controlled greenhouse where he can pollinate them, either with flies or by hand. With the resulting seed, he’ll restart the process, each time breeding only the most promising plants. Ultimately, Wolyn hopes to create a high-rubber-yielding seed that farmers could use.

Meanwhile, colleagues at the University of Guelph, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Université Laval in Quebec City work on the agronomics side, essentially figuring out how to turn a foreign weed into a Canadian cash crop. With help from the 1940s data, they’re determining optimal fertilizer mixes, irrigation systems and planting methods; plus there’s the tricky task of finding a herbicide that will kill weeds without harming the one they’re trying to grow. And all the researchers must adhere to Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulations.

In compliance with CFIA rules, Université Laval’s Martin Trépanier has to pluck off by hand any yellow flowers that appear throughout his test plot of dandelions to ensure the plants don’t spread beyond the field—an impossible job on a commercial-scale farm. “I think if the plant had a different name it would be better. But everybody’s afraid of ‘dandelions,’ ” says Trépanier, who, along with his colleagues, is waiting to learn whether the CFIA will lift its restrictions. “If the regulations don’t change, this will never happen in Canada.”

However, as analysts predict tire prices to soar 32 per cent by December, demand for rubber may trump any fear of a foreign invasion of dandelions.