A dream of Russian dandelions

The rising price of natural rubber is puncturing tire manufacturer profitability. But a weed grows in Uzbekistan...

Published July 3, 2008 4:18PM (EDT)

Out for a bike ride in Northern California, whipping down some rural road where the cows far outnumber the cars and the only energy actively being consumed is generated by the home fries you had for breakfast, it's easy to feel, however fleetingly, that you've escaped from the gas-price peak-oil climate-change rat race. The world simplifies. Head winds and hills are straightforward challenges, easy to parse, in contrast to such mysteries as to how much speculation contributes to the cost of oil, or how to calculate the net energy-efficiency of biofuels.

But then I read, in this morning's edition of the Road Bike Rider newsletter, that WTB, a high-end bike component manufacturer, raised prices on its tires and tubes 20 percent as of Monday. Michelin is following suit, instituting its own 15 percent price hike on Sept. 1.

There is no escape.

A spokesperson for Michelin cited a well-worn litany of problems: "rising raw material, energy and transportation costs." The issue of energy and transportation costs is one with which we're all too familiar. The raw material, in this case, is natural rubber.

The vast majority of the world's production of natural rubber comes from southeast Asia, and its price has been on an inexorable rise for half a decade. Some analysts blame the diversion of former rubber plantations into palm oil production. Others point an accusatory finger at hedge fund commodity speculation. And as with all agricultural commodities, the price of inputs -- fertilizer, etc -- is rising, along with demand. But the big picture brings in, well, everything. A press release from Ohio State University, discussing some plans to develop an alternate source of natural rubber in the U.S., quotes Akron-based Delta Plant Technologies President Bryan Kinnamon offering a nice capsule of complexity.

"The United States depends on 100-percent imported natural rubber, whose price has increased almost seven-fold since 2002, costing the country $3.3 billion a year," Kinnamon pointed out. "Additionally, natural-rubber supplies are becoming increasingly unstable as a result of rapidly expanding growth in China and India, decline in rubber production due to industrialization in Southeast Asia, and increasing utilization of this material by former Soviet Bloc countries. Estimates indicate that demand will exceed supply in 2020 by approximately 15 percent."

So now, I can't inflate my tires without pondering the global economy and the perils of tire price inflation. Bleah.

But not all is lost.

Enter, the "Russian" dandelion.

Did you know that during World War II, "the Soviet Union made tires for its military machine out of rubber extracted from a dandelion that grows in the mountains of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan?" Or that the U.S. simultaneously instituted a crash course in Russian dandelion experimentation, only to abandon the project after the liberation of southeast Asia from the Japanese, and concurrent advances in synthetic latex production?

So reported Kevin Mayhood in the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday, describing renewed efforts by Ohio State University scientists to squeeze rubber from the dandelion of the former Soviet Union. 3 million acres of the Russian dandelion, said Kinnamon, could satisfy 30 percent of U.S. demand.

Now you know what I'll be dreaming about, the next hill I climb -- my next bike, rolling up the road on tires made from Russian dandelions.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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