At the end of November 2017, about 1,200 researchers, regulators, and business representatives gathered in Miami, Florida for the 3rd Biostimulants World Congress. The rapid growth of the event reveals the strength of the emerging biostimulants sector. But look a little closer, and a different picture comes into focus: in some ways, biostimulants are less a separate new sector and more a reflection of connecting dots between existing technology siloes.
The emergence of biostimulants is due at least as much to a fresh way of looking at crop production — with a systems-thinking mindset — as to technological breakthroughs.
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Whether in the regulatory arena or in marketing, biostimulants have made it clear that there are unavoidable interactions between plant nutrition and plant protection. Our growing understanding of microorganisms has also taught us that there are not even clear boundaries between plants and their surrounding environment. These insights are not unique to the plant world.
In human terms too, we have a growing appreciation of the interrelatedness of health and nutrition, and we now know that the unique microbiomes each of us carries around play central roles in our immune systems, digestion and even, it appears, our mental health.
While these insights bring new opportunities, they also bring complexity to farm management. Integrated crop management brings better results for farmers, consumers, and the environment, but it requires a less simplistic model of management. Integrated management is not about simply adjusting input levels and hoping the machine hums along well: it is about constantly tweaking numerous dynamic processes and their interactions to achieve the most beneficial system balance. But even that balance is temporary; it changes throughout the growth cycle and due to outside influences, such as weather and pests, not to mention markets.
Of course, the farm system does not operate in isolation. It is part of a broader economic fabric, and the move towards the Circular Economy and bio-based technologies is a major trend in that wider context.
In its most simple terms, the Circular Economy is about moving from linear production and consumption models to “closed loop” systems where wastes and by-products are revalorized and re-used. At a more sophisticated level, it is also about rethinking designs to reduce resource use in the first place or to shift from non-renewable to renewable resources. Bio-based technologies play an important role in that shift.
The rapid growth of biostimulants is set against this backdrop. Biostimulants themselves often act on system dynamics rather than by triggering a simple, linear action or reaction in the plant or its microbiome. The effectiveness and value of using biostimulants is also highly dependent on everything else happening in that dynamic system. This is why business models, whether at the producer or distributor level, increasingly situate biostimulants as part of an integrated package of solutions covering plants’ entire development from seed to harvest.
Those packages are often broader than just the plant and provide everything from data gathering and analysis to advice and tailored bundles of inputs that foster the greatest chances of a high-value result based on local conditions.
In this context, it is increasingly difficult to clearly categorize a company by the technology it produces or the sector it represents. While it will continue to make sense to have focused activities on specific technologies, especially with regard to research and education, industry organization is likely to occur more and more around specific “missions” than around specific technologies. Those “missions” will provide the boundaries needed to make action manageable, while providing a framework for addressing and managing complexity.