Biostimulants #2: Enhancing Indoor Farming Systems to Further Help Save Soils

Biostimulants and soil health

Photo source: Klinegroup

This article is the second part of a series discussing the use of biostimulant products to help save soils. The first one, “Biostimulants #1: A Viable Solution to Promote Soil Health,” focuses on their use in traditional, soil-based farming systems.

Challenges of the Current Food Production

Worldwide, agricultural producers face the difficult challenge of meeting the food demands of an ever-increasing population on dwindling arable land. Decreasing land access is a two-pronged global dilemma, currently driven by rapid urban development and the degradation of agricultural soils by traditional farming practices such as tillage and the repeated application of synthetic mineral salts. Mitigating population growth and land urbanization lie outside farmers’ ability to create an impact. Farmers should turn their attention towards using environmentally sustainable practices to slow the desertification rates and heal biologically unproductive soils - an effort to manage the situation at hand whereby an alarming 12 million hectares of land is lost every year.

Short of halting food production completely, there isn’t a solitary solution to saving the world’s soils. Instead, it requires a multidimensional approach requiring better management strategies in soil-based farming, coupled with alternative production methods to take some pressure off conventional farming and allow damaged or depleted soils time to heal. 

The Role of Biostimulants in Soilless Farming
One potential facet for saving soils is utilizing soilless production methods such as hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics. As in traditional farming systems, using biostimulant products in indoor farming can promote sustainability and help meet the growing demand for more food. 

While controlled environment agriculture offers an excellent alternative method for food production, it often has immense energy demands and resource expenditures, including the high use of synthetic mineral salts as a fertilizer source. Implementing biostimulants in indoor farming may help reduce chemical inputs and improve production yields -- just as it does in traditional soil-based production systems -- further driving agricultural sustainability.

Avi Abittan, Re-Nuble’s Horticulture Grower states, “[T]he benefits of hydroponics and controlled environment agriculture are known. For example: being able to produce food in areas where the land is unsuitable for conventional soil farming, minimal water usage and the ability to grow food year-round. Most of the greenhouse industry relies heavily on using synthetic fertilizer salts because it allows for increased yields in a facility that is energy intensive. Industrial facilities are focused on producing large quantities, frequently at the expense of the environment...Implementing biostimulants in the greenhouse industry will help minimize the overuse of mineral salts.”

Supporting Plant Growth, Nutritional Quality, and Closed-loop Agriculture
When applied as a complementary product, biostimulants such as Re-Nuble’s organic hydroponic nutrients promote healthier plant growth, with improvements in nutritional quality, while using few inputs. Plants grow healthier and more abundantly, with improvements in nutritional quality. This is accomplished by:

  • Improving nutrient availability in the growing medium,
  • Facilitating nutrient uptake and use within the plant,
  • Strengthen plant responses to stressors, 
  • Bolster microbial colonies in the root zone. 

Not only does the use of biostimulants in indoor farming systems help to take the pressure off soil-based systems, but “drain to waste” hydroponic systems can also catalyze soil healing. After the nutrient solution is provided to the plants, any excess wastewater is expelled and applied to soils, adding organic sources of nutrients, bioavailable organic acids, and beneficial microbes back into the soil ecosystem, fostering its health. To some, the practice of disposing of wastewater seems careless, but when enhanced with biostimulants, this innovative approach promotes closed-loop agriculture, a principle upon which Re-Nuble roots its operations. By incorporating biostimulants into our product, we enable soilless farms to recirculate not just food waste, but beneficial nutrients back into the system - and indirectly in many ways, soil. 

Fixing Legal Definition Gaps to Enable Biostimulant Usage

The 2018 Farm Bill defines 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.”

As talked about previously, biostimulants offer great potential to help the soil heal. In the United States, though, what constitutes a biostimulant product is still ambiguous due to the EPA’s lack of regulation. This discrepancy prevents food and agri-industries from fully leveraging the products similar to what the European Union has accomplished. Implementing regulations on US product use, safety, and efficacy will help advance closed-loop agriculture in soil-based and soilless systems, helping to ameliorate degraded soils. 

Stopping or even slowing the degradation of agricultural soils will not be an easy task, nor will it be one with a simple solution. Fixing inherent concerns within traditional food production requires implementing many practices, similar to how individual spokes strengthen a wheel. Soilless indoor farms and the use of biostimulants within those systems are only two parts of the overall wheel, but they hold much value in the drive towards safer, sustainable agriculture. If your farm wants to take some steps towards actionable solutions, let's chat