Photo source: Haifa Group
This is a 2-part article on biostimulants and its role in agriculture. Part II can be found here.
Soil, dirt, ground...no matter what you call it, there’s no denying the gritty stuff under our feet is one of the world’s most important natural resources. From fostering plant growth for food to supporting microbial colonies that produce antibiotics, the soil is crucial for human life and well-being. Yet, even with renowned importance, human activity worldwide threatens this invaluable resource.
Assessing the Current Soil Health Situation
Leading this endangerment is agricultural production. For the last 100 years, immense amounts of synthetic mineral salts have been applied to soils to stimulate crop growth and improve yields. With basic goal of replacing (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, etc.) depleted through intensive crop production, their rudimentary, yet highly effective, function does little to foster overall soil health and promote longevity. Instead, the continued practice of applying synthetic mineral salts for crop production is degrading the very resource we rely on for food.
Intensive, repeated application of synthetic mineral salts can make soils unusable for food production over time by lowering the pH, damaging aggregates, reducing carbon sequestration, and destroying beneficial microbes. According to the United Nations, desertification of once arable land occurs at rates 30 to 35 percent higher than historical trends -- an alarming 12 million hectares of land is lost every year.
For almost a century, growers have maintained an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset with little thought given to the demise of our soils from the application of synthetic mineral salts. In the last decade, though, an increase in environmental awareness has farmers reconsidering their mentality and adopting sustainable production practices such as the application of biostimulants.
Biostimulants, Legal Definitions, and its Untapped Potential
The 2018 Farm Bill defined biostimulants as “a substance or microorganism that, when applied to seeds, plants, or on the rhizosphere, stimulates natural processes to enhance or benefit nutrient uptake, nutrient use efficiency, tolerance to abiotic stress, or crop quality and yield.”
Soil degradation from synthetic mineral salts slows, and damaged soils are put on track to become healthy again.
Reduced fertilizer applications also result in less contamination of water sources that potentially cause dead zones similar to the Chesapeake Bay, areas of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Baltic Sea. Less environmental damage from the mining and production of synthetic mineral salts is observed too.
It’s well-understood biostimulants offer much potential for food production and may play a crucial role in saving our soil. But they are a long way from being utilized to their full advantage.
Here in the United States, what constitutes a biostimulant product is still ambiguous. Unlike synthetic salts, pesticides, or plant growth regulators, the EPA doesn’t regulate biostimulants for use. This lack of structured regulation prevents widespread adoption of their use -- in the world of conventional agriculture, unregulated, undefined products struggle to gain a stronghold against trusted synthetic mineral salts.
In stark contrast to American agriculture, the European Union defines and regulates biostimulants under the Fertilising Products Regulation (FPR). These regulations set high standards for product use, safety, and efficacy. In turn, biostimulant use is gaining a foothold in EU agricultural systems, working to increase plant yields and ameliorate degraded soils.
The future of sustainable agriculture is dependent on utilization of biostimulants as they are naturally occurring, environmentally friendly and provide plants with benefits that synthetic fertilizers cannot.