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AGRICULTURE REPORT – Sunflower Rubber - 2004-02-09

Broadcast: February 10, 2004

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

Sunflower plants grow tall and produce a beautiful flower. The seeds are good to eat and produce a high quality oil for cooking. But scientists in the United States hope that sunflowers will also become known for their rubber.

The scientists are attempting to improve the quality and amount of latex from sunflower plants. Latex is made of rubber particles, water and other plant substances. It is a higher value product than solid rubber.

The scientists believe that sunflowers could reduce America’s dependence on imported natural rubber and rubber made from oil products. The United States imports more than one-million tons of natural rubber each year.

Katrina Cornish is an expert on how plants produce rubber. She works for the Agriculture Department in its Agricultural Research Service office in Albany, California.

Katrina Cornish notes that more than two-thousand-five-hundred kinds of plants produce natural latex. But she says few have the qualities that scientists want. Most plants are too small or grow too slowly. Others do not produce enough latex. Or the latex they produce is not good enough.

Sunflowers are large and grow quickly. Currently, latex produced from sunflowers is not good enough to be used to make products because of the quality and amount. However, the scientists hope to improve the situation in the future through genetic engineering.

Katrina Cornish and her team are experimenting with several different kinds of sunflowers. She is working with scientists from Colorado State University and Ohio State University. They are interested in the kinds of plants that produce the highest amounts of latex in stems and leaves. They are working with sunflower plants that grow in northern areas where most of the American sunflower crop is grown.

The scientists also work with other kinds of plants. One is the guayule [why-YOU-lee]. This is a desert plant native to the American Southwest. Katrina Cornish says Native Americans chewed the plant to remove latex for rubber balls and other goods. She says early automobile tires were made with guayule.

Last year a company working with her team opened a processing center. Guayule products will be made for people who get a severe health reaction to gloves and other goods made of other kinds of natural latex.

This VOA Special English Agriculture Report was written by George Grow. This is Steve Ember.