5 Ways Biostimulants are Impacting the Crop Protection Market

Clear distinctions have been made in the agrichemical industry between pesticides, fertilizers, and biostimulants.

Biostimulants occupy a specific niche with products that neither add elemental nutrition (fertilizers), nor control biotic stress (pesticides), but still increase crop yields. These positive effects are chiefly due to changes in crop metabolism, hormonal signalling, and abiotic stress resilience. Despite the clear distinction in place between these three classes of agrichemicals, biostimulants can impact the crop protection market in some interesting ways. These effects will only become larger as the market for biostimulants continues to grow and mature.

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1. Taking market share, legitimately

When pesticide registrations are revoked or are not renewed, end-users are faced with a fork in the road. Do they look for a replacement active ingredient and attempt to carry on as before, or do they re-think their options? The latter option is often accompanied with a more holistic look at how pests and diseases are being managed, which could include the development of an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy. One key facet of such a strategy is to look to proactive ways to prevent pests from causing damage, rather than remaining in a purely reactive mode. Therefore, as one pesticide is withdrawn it might not simply be replaced like for like with a biocide but instead replaced with a product that improves crop health.

Many biostimulants have proven to be effective at improving crop health and resilience to pests. As a result, the budget that previously was spent solely on pesticides may be spread across other areas too, such as pheromone traps, mesh for exclusion of pests, and biostimulants to improve crop health.

In other cases, even without the removal of a registered pesticides, the results achieved on crop yield by using a biostimulant might be so impressive that it could compete with a pesticide for the set amount of funding that a farmer/grower may spend on agrichemicals. However, this is only likely for pests/diseases that cause minor/minimal damage and for biopesticides with a strong effect.

2. Taking market share, nefariously

Unfortunately, there are biostimulants on the market today that make illegal pesticidal claims. Some people refer to these products as ‘snake oils’, but they are no such thing; they are simply ‘unregistered pesticides’! In some countries this practice is clamped down on hard, and such companies are heavily fined, shamed, and/or go out of business. In other countries, the practice is largely permitted. Regrettably this includes the UK, where I can name you over 20 products being sold as unregistered pesticides. Even though the enforcing body (HSE) has been informed, they have shown no willingness to take any action. Luckily, the sale of biostimulants making pesticidal claims is largely limited to non-food crops in the UK. This includes the sports turf, ornamentals, home and garden, and amateur hydroponics sectors. The reason that this practice is limited to these sectors is because British farmers growing edible crops are now required to comply with very high standards from supermarkets who require audits to be completed on fresh produce. As such, if a farmer uses an unregistered/illegal product, the crop cannot be sold. As the market for such products is constrained these products have not caused the larger agrichemical companies undue concern, despite the high cost of registration when acting within the law.

3. Improving the action of pesticides

There are several ways in which a biostimulant can improve the action of a pesticide. The biostimulant may be combined with the pesticide during formulation or, more commonly, during tank mixing. One proposed mode of action for improving pesticide action for a number of botanical extracts, such as seaweeds, is the improved retention of an active ingredient on the leaf surface, either by forming micro-colloids of polysaccharides or an ionic charge held by the biostimulant. Another mode of action that may be present in many extract biostimulants is the metabolic stimulation of beneficial microbes that have been applied as a biopesticides. This can be due simply to the presence of organic carbon sources in the extracts, but could also involve the activation of specific extracellular enzymes in the microbe that are key to the control of a pathogen, such as chitinases. Furthermore, many humic acid products carry a number of claims relating to improved absorption of active ingredients and micronutrients. Whilst these are all important functions, you will still need to ensure that you comply with local regulations covering adjuvants. As a result, it is unlikely you could sell a biostimulant purely on its ability to improve pesticide action.

Obviously, biostimulants will not always improve the action of a pesticides, at times they may even have no significant effect, or may even reduce the effectiveness of the pesticide. Potential negative effects could include the precipitation of the pesticidal active ingredient out of solution, or having an antagonistic effect. Potential antagonistic effects could include providing a source of organic carbon nutrition that aids the growth of a facultative saprotroph pathogen could utilize before entering a necrotrophic growth phase. Another potential negative interaction is providing an anti-oxidant effect on the leaf surface during the period of pathogen invasion when the plant is producing reactive oxygen species (ROS) to combat the attack. This conceivably could include the presence of anti-oxidants such as mannitol (present in very high levels in some seaweed extracts).

4. Bringing more attention to agrichemicals and the industry

Biostimulants is an area of agriculture that is seeing a lot of innovation, and with it a good deal of investor activity. Sites such as Agfundernews.com often feature new biostimulant companies in their efforts to raise investment capital. As such, biostimulants join ‘precision nutrition’, ‘robotics’, and ‘meat-free alternatives’ as key topics that raise the profile of the agricultural supply chain to investors, innovators, and journalists and show it to be a space where innovation and business opportunities lie.

Biostimulants have been of particular interest to fertilizer manufacturers as using them in formulations has proved a good way of providing USPs to what might otherwise have been fairly standard products. The introduction of a biostimulant into the formulation has enabled many manufacturers to create products with new USPs and charge higher prices for what would otherwise be a standard generic product. The same could be true for some generic pesticide formulations, but the practice is far less widespread compared to the fertilizer industry.

5. Providing a launchpad for new biopesticides

After a number of years on the market, end-users often report that a biostimulant has shown positive effects in the protection against a specific pest or disease. A number of successful biostimulant companies have taken these unexpected reports from the field and studied them in more depth to understand why this effect occurred. In some cases, this has resulted in the development of a biopesticide that is a refinement or purified single compound from a biological biostimulant. These new products have then been registered as biopesticides in their own right. This includes Laminarin, which is registered as a biopesticide in France, chitosan which is registered as an organic biofungicide (under Basic Substance regulations) in the EU, and the free-living fungal species Trichoderma harzianum.

In conclusion, the market for biostimulants is growing rapidly with the effects on the crop protection market being seen in a number of ways. Rather than seeing it as a battle, it can be viewed as an opportunity for innovation, integration, co-formulation, and new areas of enterprise. Biostimulants could be especially important as we look to improve the environmental impact and sustainability of farming and how crop protection is viewed by the wider public. It would be interesting to hear from other people’s experiences in other countries on any of these issues, especially because the registration of biostimulants varies markedly between different countries.