Biostimulants: Finding the Keys to Distribution

Snake oil no more, biostimulants have had the scientific proof to back them up for some time now and are breezing by biologicals in growth. Instead of using products like seaweed — which captures about 35% of the $1.8 billion biostimulant market — to merely spice up other products, businesses are creating value expressly through them, says Roger Tripathi, president of Acadian Seaplants Ltd.’s plant health division.

Now for the next step: integrating them into the value chain so end users have access to them in the most economical way possible.

Roger Tripathi, President of Acadian Seaplants Ltd.

Roger Tripathi, President of Acadian Seaplants Ltd.

Keys of Distribution
The U.S. and Australia are out of the ordinary because biostimulant distribution is controlled by the big retail chains such as WinField. In other regions, the distribution chains for fertilizers, crop protection, or seed are frequently utilized. For Acadian’s plan of attack, it has decided on a custom strategy for each country. For example, it works with CPS in California, United Suppliers and WinField in the Midwest, and Wilbur-Ellis and others in other areas. China is divided into 10 regions, and for each of those Acadian is choosing distributors, some of which are stronger in the fertilizer and nutrient side of the business, while others are multi-product distributors.

As far as what the future holds for biostimulant distribution, biostimulants are becoming an integral part of the integrated crop solution approach. “If multinationals such as BASF, Bayer CropScience or Syngenta are trying to sell a full solution for a particular crop to the farmer through the chain, we want to be a part of that.” Acadian is also developing its own full range of unique specialized bionutritional products and will promote these new solutions to help growers manage abiotic stress and mitigate biotic stress. “It’s being driven as an integrated crop program approach. That’s what I’m trying to do at Acadian: I’m trying to bring a seed and soil health product, foliar nutrient range and also a pre/post-harvest solutions, targeting specific farmer needs,” he says.

For Brandon Bioscience, an Irish manufacturer of seaweed extracts, working with companies that focus on technical selling is key to its business strategy. Biostimulants can be a confusing technology with many myths and legends about their effect, and the task of educating the market and thereby securing the confidence of the growing community is of huge importance.

“You can produce all the glossy magazines, all of the PowerPoint presentations, and all of the nice marketing material you want, but the final proof has to be grower satisfaction. And grower satisfaction is best represented by repeat purchases in my opinion. Brandon has spent the past 18 years building its market presence and it is brilliant to see the level of adoption,” says Paul Mullins, the company’s co-founder and director. “Getting growers to try your product is challenging but once growers come on board the level of retention of those growers is fantastic.” This applies to both small family farms right up to the largest of corporate farms.

Brandon Bioscience sells its hallmark products, Terramar and Seacrop, to a diverse customer base in over 40 markets. Sales have grown every single year and have more than doubled in the past four years demonstrating the growing demand and acceptance of biostimulants in the marketplace.

Regulatory in Flux
The proven merits of biostimulants aside, Mullins echoes the entire industry when he describes the regulatory situation internationally as challenging. “It’s a new technology that doesn’t fit easily within existing regulatory frameworks where everything tended to be either a fertilizer or an agrichemical; it was very much a black-and-white-type of an issue. Biostimulants are natural products, generally accepted as being a very safe and friendly technology — in fact, of the many thousands of different seaweed species that are known, I don’t believe that any have ever been identified as harmful.”

Brandon invests the equivalent of 10% of its turnover on R&D each year and communicating the proven benefits and science behind those effects can be very difficult within the regulatory frameworks that currently exist in some markets, says Mullins. “Our products are not crop protection products, but neither are they simple fertilizers, and this space between these two traditional technologies is treated very differently by regulators around the world.”

In countries lacking a biostimulant framework — such as Thailand, India, Vietnam, Spain, and Italy — biostimulants can be sold on the fertility value they provide and nothing more. More rarely, they can be promoted for their scientifically proven efficacy.

The European Biostimulant Industry Council (EBIC), of which he is vice president, has a code of conduct that requires its 50-plus members to operate within the framework of legislation applicable in any given country they sell their products.

Europe, which has long led the way in championing biostimulants, is proposing to recognize biostimulants as their own class of product in the revised fertilizer directive, which was published March 17 and is currently going through the European legislative process. “Going through any political process is always an unknown, but we would hope that somewhere between 2018 and 2019 it would be enacted and apply across the European Union,” Mullins says. Many other jurisdictions have taken an interest in these developments in Europe and hopefully they will follow this lead, he says.

The EU system not only proposes to recognize the category, but also seeks to foster innovation, which he says is a hugely important factor to ensuring this technology develops and becomes an important tool for growers as they seek to increase sustainable crop production.

“The huge investment made by companies active in this sector can be communicated to the end user without fear of looking over their shoulder. It is like working in a no man’s land in some countries at the moment.”

The U.S., by contrast, has decided to categorize biostimulants as fertilizers for the time being. EPA is set to issue a white paper that will provide more clarity on the topic by the end of the year.

Mullins believes the level of investment by biostimulant companies will lead to a heavy increase in adoption and targeted application of science-based, field-proven products. Double-digit growth in the sector is expected to see sector sales of $3 billion by the early 2020s.