How to Avoid Inflated Biostimulant Expectations

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in AgriBusiness Global’s May/June print magazine. We now also distribute the magazine digitally for added circulation and convenience. Preview the digital edition here.

The biostimulant industry is booming, and it’s virtually impossible to keep track of all of the different products it offers, especially when so many different products can be marketed under the same umbrella term — biostimulant. Not only are the expectations high but future expectations seem to be even higher. This goes for plant growers, biostimulant producers/distributors, and even ag-visionaries and the green movement.

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While the concept of a biostimulant keeps getting bigger, it’s often quite unclear what a biostimulant really is. And for good reasons. A biostimulant can be virtually any product that has an effect on either the crop directly or on the soil (and, thus, the crop indirectly).

To achieve clarity, we need to focus on the function of the product category. To narrow it down we will focus on soil-affecting products in this article, as that is the niche in which the boom is the biggest.

A soil biostimulant enhances the soil properties for the crop by adding activated organic matter and/or beneficial microbes. The point is to engineer the soil to provide the crop with the resources assimilated from the soil in accordance with crop performance potential: nutrients, water, and air. That’s really all it is.

Sometimes when I speak to people in the agriculture sector about biostimulants, I get the impression that they think biostimulants are some kind of magic universal yield enhancer, which, of course, is absurd. There’s no such thing that simply adds all the exact properties to the soil and then accomplishes these outlandish results. There’s always a tradeoff.

Therefore, biostimulants are particularly useful in poor soils with low organic matter content. The biostimulant will then help to restore the productivity capacity of the soil. But it cannot do this on its own. It needs additional organic matter of high quality, i.e., organic matter-containing nutrients that will become available to the crop when the biostimulant enhances the decomposition of it.

In addition, mineral fertilizers will most likely be necessary as an additional aspect if optimal yield level is the production goal. Therefore, the biostimulant cannot replace fertilizers or reduce the plant’s inherent need for nutrients. In fact, the opposite is often true. When the cropping system is improved by a biostimulant, the need for fertilizers will increase if the system was previously unproductive.

Why I give the above examples on how biostimulants work is to manage expectation. Inflated expectations must be avoided, and that can only be done if we understand what biostimulants actually do. This further leads us to how we can separate good products from bad.

Due to the boom and the massive supply on a whole range of products, it’s crucial that we can separate good from bad and determine which products actually work, especially as there are quite some products on the market that either don’t work very well or aren’t scientifically verified to work.

All of this is very important from a procurement and supply-chain perspective, as we must know what to look for:

  1. Verified and quantifiable effect; documentation of results that can stand scrutiny.
  2. Universality; as biostimulants often primarily work in given circumstances, it’s preferable with products that have a good net effect on many types of crops.
  3. If not universal, aspects or niches that the products address must be clearly defined.
  4. Low water content to simplify and lower costs for logistics.
  5. If microbial, the product should preferably contain as many strains of beneficial microbes as possible, in contrast to only one or two.
  6. If based on organic matter, make sure that the substance is activated, such that it actually can perform a value-adding function.

How will this affect availability of products?

First, it will make the market a bit smaller. But in terms of availability, it should still allow for abundance of high-quality products, as producers of high-quality products still often have very high production and export capacities.

However, do note that there will still be a need for products of lower/basic quality, although for a different purpose. Low-quality products can still serve as commodities for the production of high-quality products, as they can be engineered chemically in the production process.

Second, this will affect the price. High-quality products are often high-margin products when it comes to biostimulants. So, the cost will be higher all the way through the supply chain. However, this is OK if the product adds value to the end-user by providing a high benefit-cost ratio and quick ROI.

The opportunities that arise are that the mess we now call the biostimulant market will become clearer, a global supply chain of quality products will develop faster, and those who can prove the value of their products will have a good advantage.