Biostimulants Earn the Spotlight in Agriculture

Predicting the future is rarely a safe activity. Look no further than last year. Anyone’s prognostications for 2020 were ripped to shreds by the appearance of COVID-19. That said, here is a prediction for the rest of 2021 and beyond: The industry will see continued interest in and the growth of biostimulants.

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Okay, maybe that’s not profound or risky as predictions go. After all, biostimulants have been one of the fastest growing crop inputs for years, and the interest in them shown by everyone from multinationals to small independent operators focused solely on single products suggests biostimulants will continue to carve a place in the ag industry.

And like much of the ag industry in recent years, biostimulants have seen some merger and acquisition activity — notably the recent announcement of the 10-year-old Biostimulant Coalition joining The Fertilizer Institute (TFI).

“The main goal is to get streamlined, (and find a) better path to market for these products,” says David G. Beaudreau Jr., who spent 10 years leading the Biostimulant Coalition. Beaudreau is also Senior Vice President of D.C. Legislative and Regulatory Services Inc., a bipartisan lobbying and government relations firm representing a diverse group of clients before Congress and federal regulatory agencies. “That’s our dream goal. But there are so many sub and moving parts to that.”

What was once the Biostimulant Coalition will become the Biostimulant Council, in essence, a committee within TFI.

There certainly has been a lot of change when it comes to the awareness and adoption of biological products in general and biostimulants in particular. “There is better understanding of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about biostimulants,” Beaudreau says. “The educational outreach by the industry and by (media/conferences) to explain what these technologies are and can do, have helped improve the awareness around this category of products.

“Our advocacy work has really helped promote the industry. Now when you ask the USDA or EPA, they have a much better understanding of what biostimulant means, not just to us, but to the farmers that might use them.”

Despite the immense amount of work that has gone into educating end users about biological products there is still some hesitation attached to these solutions for some.

“There’s still that stigma at times, but retailers and growers are becoming ever more aware of these technologies and their potential benefits,” says Gilman Farley, President, Ft. Wayne, IN-based Biodyne USA. “Biostimulants are definitely becoming more mainstream. But it’s still very confusing because there’s a lot of products entering the market. It’s exciting, at the same time, because people are realizing there’s validity to these products that can bring real value and ROI to the farmgate.”

Goals & Objectives

Joining TFI, the new Biostimulant Council has additional resources to meet a variety of goals and objectives. Here are just a couple Beaudreau listed:

Support Other Biologicals including humic product and seaweed extracts. “There isn’t an organization that represents seaweed extracts/plant extract-type products,” Beaudreau says. “We have a few members that are in that market and they’d like to build a sub-group that’s part of the Biostimulant Council that will be focused on seaweed related questions.”

Developing Standards: “This past year we worked with BPIA (Biological Products Industry Alliance) and BIW Group (Biostimulant Industry Workgroup, which is composed of half BPIA and half Biostimulant Council members) to start developing some standards. That’s a newer initiative that started mid-year last year. This coming year we will have a lot of interest from the new TFI members. The plan is to develop standards around efficacy, safety and composition. Those are the ones that will help us navigate the regulatory questions we get from some of the state regulators.”

Farley has his own goals and objectives. “These products have the ability to change the world of agriculture in a very positive way,” he says.

Looking at the State Level

Better understanding on the federal level is a step in the right direction, but biostimulants, like fertilizers, are regulated state by state in the U.S., meaning a company that wants to blanket the U.S. would need to get approval from 50 different governmental agencies each with their own set of rules.

The former Biostimulant Coalition was working with Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO), which in August (2020) formed its own biostimulant committee.
“We’ve been advocating for that for a while,” Beaudreau says. “Through that group they will also potentially create a definition for biostimulants that the states will accept. It’s possible that could come together even quicker than the farm bill (federal) path. We’re encouraged that they’re doing that. I think it will help streamline things at the state level in the interim before we get a federal definition approved.”

Getting a definition approved has been an ongoing task, but once one has been adopted it means everyone is working from the same playbook.

“To get a definition approved, it will allow the states in particular to know what we’re talking about when we have a biostimulant product that’s on the market or that a company would like to submit for registration,” Beaudreau says.

A definition gives legitimacy to a national approval process with one set of standards. A government agency or a third-party entity could offer oversight, could review products, and “give them a stamp of approval, and (companies) would get a way to more quickly register products. That’s another component of this that would help a lot,” Beaudreau says. There are two definitions the group is currently working with (see sidebar at top right for the preferred definition).

“The next step is to figure out who will endorse that and whether we can get people on (Capitol) Hill to include that definition in the future farm bill or another piece of ag-related legislation,” Beaudreau says. “That’s the goal. We have a description in a USDA report, but it’s not official yet. It’s a stumbling block for the industry. We need to have an agreed upon definition to have a regulatory framework that is supported.”

That will help in a variety of ways, not the least of which, is helping end users understand what these products are and the benefits they offer. “They want to see efficacy data, or they want to see sort of standard in terms of how these are evaluated,” Beaudreau says. “That’s our industry-led attempt to do that. That will be a big component of what we’re focused on this next year.”

The Industry Responds

“There’s been a lot of investment by a lot of companies in terms of the R&D phase, but also the scientific proof behind what they’re promoting,” Beaudreau says. “That’s very true that the farmers want to be able to see that these products actually work. There has been a lot of investment there that’s made very good progress in those areas. More needs to be done.”
Biodyne USA, is one of nine Biodyne operations operating in different countries and industries around the world.

The operation has gone from seeing its products on less than 20,000 acres in 2012 to well over 1 million acres of corn and soybeans in 2020. According to Farley: “We’re expanding rapidly; we invest heavily into R and D, and are really understanding what these products are doing, not only in terms of yield and increased growth, but increased nutrient availability and efficiency. With our proprietary technology, It’s not just about one or two strains of microbes, we have over two dozen strains and each blend that are purposely put together alone, or in combination with other technology, for maximum synergy and performance in the field. This microbial team technology has been proven through hundreds of trials across the country over the past 8 years.”

One recent blockbuster announcement was Syngenta’s October 2020 acquisition of Valagro. In a release announcing the acquisition Jon Parr, President Global Crop Protection at Syngenta, noted: “Significant levels of investment in innovations such as Biologicals are necessary in order to deliver a sustainable future and help farmers deliver a food system working in harmony with nature. Syngenta Crop Protection and Valagro have a foundation in science-based innovation and are eager to collaborate, share knowledge and build on each other’s capabilities. By fostering the entrepreneurial spirit and culture of Valagro, powered by our global scale and capability, together we will shape the future of the agricultural biologicals market.”

The expectation as that more companies will continue to show interest in this market segment.

“It’s an exciting opportunity; it’s a great moment in time to be involved with this industry,” Beaudreau says. “It’s going to continue to grow rapidly. For the companies that are just investigating it or are on the fence about whether they should get involved with the biostimulant category in general, this is a good time to take a longer look at whether that’s of interest to them.”

Farley agrees. And even with all that has been learned about these products, there is still plenty more to understand.

“I bet, as a biostimulant industry, we know less than 1% of what’s really going on out there when it comes to the biologicals and full interactions in the soil,” Farley says. “So, it’s very exciting right now there’s a world of opportunity to learn and grow as an industry to be better stewards of soil health and sustainable practices.”

Company Updates:

Marrone Bio Innovations: The company announced its foliar plant health product for row crops, Pacesetter, showed outstanding performance in 2020 field trials in the U.S. Midwest. Grower demo trials saw an average of a six-to-one return on investment with improved yield of 6.4 bushels per acre in corn and 3.3 bushels per acre in soybeans.

The Andersons: The company tested many products that either started growing microbial populations when mixed or lost large populations of their microbes after mixing. There was only one source of biologicals that proved to be stable in our liquid fertilizers for a sustained period and not lose viability of the microbials. After years of testing, designing, and planning, the company introduced three biological products — Bio Pass, Bio Pass LG, and Bio Reverse.

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