The market for biostimulants and micronutrients continues to grow faster than many other areas of the crop protection market. While comparatively small, these products continue to gain acceptance and make available new solutions suppliers can provide growers.
CropLife® magazine’s sister publication, AgriBusiness Global™, spoke with several companies focused on these segments to get insight on these markets.
“Truly active and proven biostimulants, whether in conjunction with micronutrients or not, will help growers learn how to grow healthier crops with reduced basic synthetic inputs,” says Johnny McRight, owner of DeltAg. “They drive growers to become better informed about the critical need for healthy soils and healthy plant roots that result in healthy crops, which produce improved yields for the conditions they are exposed to.”
The benefits are clear, but these products are often still misunderstood.
“A glaring vacuum surrounds biostimulant products that have a biotic effect on plant pests and diseases,” says Dr. Jeff Norrie, Agricultural Research Manager, Acadian Seaplants Ltd. “They are often misinterpreted as ‘plant protection products’ when in fact, they are stimulating the plants own natural processes to resist these stresses. There is an abundance of peer-reviewed, published science to show biostimulants can induce gene transcription for several compounds that have importance in plant defense mechanisms, as well as increased activity of several essential antioxidant enzymes. These are among the same arguments used to justify the inclusion of plant biostimulants as abiotic stress reducers.”
Growth is rapid in all geographies, led by the U.S. and Europe, says David Lanciault, President & CEO of Agricen Sciences.
Lanciault sees growth in South American countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, as well as Mexico, India, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
“Our sister company, Agricen, has in the past few years opened operations in Australia to provide biostimulant products, namely fertilizer biocatalysts in that market, and they are seeing a lot of interest in this technology.
“In many markets, like in Europe, demand increases are driven by production economics — for example, not having large amounts of chemical-based fertilizers to draw on — coupled with societal pressure for sustainability,” Lanciault says. “And in Africa, while demand there will lag other emerging markets, the use of biostimulants should complement natural and/or organic sources of nutrients and the requirement for increased production of food per acre.”
Biggest Product Impact
Biostimulants include marine plant extracts, humic acids, amino acids, and other natural products such as sapponins and compost teas, Norrie says. There can be a variety of other biostimulants including organic acids or other plant nutrients. For micronutrients, there are recognized essential, and some almost essential (plant-specific), nutrients used by plants to induce a variety of enzymatic reactions and cofactors.
“Humic acid and seaweed extract are very accessible, and anyone that can blend can add them to liquid fertilizers and claim a biostimulant activity of sorts,” McRight says.
Lanciault agrees: Seaweed, organic acids, amino acids, and other complex organics — all of which have been in the market for some time — will, in the near term, be the most popular products. “These are the higher-volume products in the market, today, and will continue to have the most impact as the market grows,” he says.
As the R&D engines grind on, a “second wave” of biostimulant technology will reach readiness, Lanciault says.
“This wave will be consistent with the ‘natural product discovery’ pipeline in pharmaceuticals, featuring novel organisms (plants and microbes) and their metabolites — with targeted, well-documented modes of action that mimic chemical modes,” he says.
With all the scientific advances that will help grow the market, “the most significant impact will be the maturation process over the next 10 years to thinking about the use of these technologies much more systemically — that we are managing soil/plant ecosystems as biological systems, through combinations of approaches, rather than layering on products that solve very specific problems,” Lanciault says.
According to Lanciault, much of the current research work is aimed at technologies to improve nutrient-use efficiency and relieve nutrient stress. Those help with abiotic stress tolerance — stresses such as heat, cold, drought, salinity, and compaction.
“Research is aiming to isolate new active ingredients or complex mixtures that help to manage such stresses — either acting to directly improve the soil or to increase nutrient retention and availability — and to have positive effects on plant growth promotion to help increase tolerance.”
From a utilization viewpoint, McRight sees suppliers offering formulations that utilize humic acid as an ingredient to enhance nutrient uptake and translocation in plants. The fastest growing segment is the use of seaweed extract as a primary ingredient with the same function in mind. On the mircronutrient side of the equation, the primary change is seen in soil applications. N-P-K blends now include dry granular micronutrients to more applications of liquids both in the soil and over the top of growing crops for more immediate foliar crop response.
“There is more and more emphasis on integration of various technologies and products to produce synergy,” Norrie says. “Many companies are looking at maintaining efficacy for classic fungicides and insecticides at reduced rates, by mixing with biostimulants. The biostimulants can either help with delivery of active ingredients or make the plant more responsive to lower dose applications. The result is a smaller environmental footprint with less residue.”
Several factors are driving the interest in and use of biostimulants and micronutrients.
Increases in grower production costs, per-acre profitability for the dealer with huge reductions in overhead for delivery, increased pressure from environmentalists, and government concerns as well as regulation of basic fertilizer application rates and use of chemical inputs, all serve to increase interest in these segments, McRight says.
“The bottom line is growers worldwide are beginning to understand the true value of plant health and the need to find methods for increasing production at reduced overall costs per unit produced,” he says.
Lanciault sees similar drivers.
“The strongest forces driving demand for these technologies include the need for crop intensification (being able to increase yields per acre) while pursuing increasingly sustainable practices, seeking biological alternatives to boost production with decreased pressure on the environment, or adding to integrated practices to close the yield gap,” he says.
The fact that these products fit a wide range of agendas, from the green movement to consumer demands, has helped their growth.
“There is a broader acceptance and recognition of the increasing benefits of natural products,” Norrie says. “An increasing focus on products that offer abiotic stress resistance and marine plants have proven especially effective. Growers globally are recognizing the many benefits of biostimulants and, in turn, companies are recognizing the need to have them as a part of their portfolio of products.”