Finding sustainable solutions to enhance crop productivity is agriculture’s ultimate challenge in the 21st century. Over the past 10-20 years, biostimulants have gained increasing attention for their potential to address these monumental challenges.
Biostimulants are one of the fastest-growing product segments within the agricultural industry. As the demand for biostimulants grows, the market continues to be flooded by new manufacturers with products of varying quality, efficacy, and safety. Retailers and growers often struggle to identify which products are worth their time, which raises the question: does the biostimulant industry need a certification program?
First, What Exactly are Biostimulants?
Before we delve into the need for a certification program, let's understand exactly what biostimulants are. Biostimulants are substances or microorganisms that can stimulate natural plant processes to improve nutrient uptake, stress tolerance, and overall plant health. Unlike fertilizers that provide essential nutrients, biostimulants work in synergy with plants, encouraging their inherent biological mechanisms. For a deeper dive into what exactly biostimulants are and how they work, our blog on the subject is an excellent primer.
The wide diversity of compounds with biostimulating properties is in no small part why formal regulations and definitions of biostimulants have been largely nonexistent—until now.
Regulation in the Biostimulant Industry
The biostimulant industry has experienced remarkable growth in recent decades, and that trend looks to only be continuing. Farmers and growers are increasingly recognizing the value of biostimulants in enhancing crop yield and quality. This surge in demand can be attributed to several factors, including global shifts toward sustainable agricultural practices, soaring fertilizer costs, climate change-fueled increases in abiotic stresses, and advances in both biostimulant product formulation and scientific understanding of plant biology and the soil microbiome.
The growth in biostimulant manufacturers and grower demand for their products has so far outpaced an appropriate regulatory environment. Unlike conventional agricultural inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, biostimulants currently lack a unified regulatory framework. Regulations governing biostimulants vary significantly between different regions and countries. As a result, manufacturers face challenges in navigating the complex and diverse regulatory landscape. That is beginning to change, however, as major countries and trade agreements have begun to formalize regulations surrounding biostimulant products in recent years.
The lack of legal definition and industry regulation means growers have historically been provided with minimal transparency into the efficacy and safety of some biostimulant products. For the biostimulant industry to mature and gain widespread acceptance, a coherent and reliable certification program can help manufacturers access new markets and help growers determine what biostimulant products are reliably proven to be safe and effective.
The Pros and Cons of Biostimulant Certification Programs
A well-designed certification program can serve as a quality assurance mechanism for biostimulants. By establishing rigorous testing and evaluation processes, it can ensure that only effective and safe products reach the market. By requiring manufacturers to meet specific criteria and demonstrating their products' beneficial effects through scientific evidence, a certification will help retailers and growers easily make informed decisions when exploring the ever-expanding array of biostimulant products.
While the concept seems promising, these sorts of industry certification programs are not without criticism. One of the significant objections from some within the industry is that certifications act as an additional burden in an already competitive market. There is a worry that certification adds bureaucratic red tape and additional expenses, which ultimately stifle innovation. Some skeptics also voice concern over the effectiveness of certifications in general. Even with the best intentions, poorly administered programs can become little more than exercises in corporate greenwashing and marketing while providing limited value to the product’s end users.
Establishing an Effective Biostimulant Certification
The successful implementation of a certification program hinges on defining clear and comprehensive standards for biostimulant products, which have now been introduced into law in the European Union and the United States. These standards should cover aspects like product composition, application methods, and expected results. In developing these standards, collaboration among industry stakeholders, scientists, and regulatory authorities is crucial.
In the US, the Fertilizer Institute recently announced the formation of the Certified Biostimulant Program. Informed by new federal definitions and standards for the biostimulant industry, this voluntary program is a step towards an industry-wide certification model.
The program remains fully voluntary. Product certification involves testing and an annual fee to ensure products conform to minimum standards in safety, efficacy, and material composition.
Branding a product with a “Certified Biostimulant” logo can be a way to build trust and make the market easier to navigate for ag retailers and growers. But the best manufacturers already have research and testing protocols that exceed those of the program. Reliable, high-quality biostimulant products often will already carry other more stringent certifications from organizations like OMRI, which are mandated for any input to be used in organic growing operations.
It takes time for industry certification programs to mature and become widely accepted. A well-designed biostimulant certification program can eventually provide value to all industry stakeholders, from manufacturers to growers to eaters, but we are still in the very beginning stages of that process.
As certification progresses, the biostimulant industry can look to other programs, such as Organic and Fair Trade certifications, for insights into best practices. Success depends on striking the correct balance between encouraging innovation and technological advancements while adhering to strict criteria that promotes only the safest and most effective products. Without this adherence, certification programs risk becoming little more than a “pay to play” operation, in which certification labels provide little real benefit to growers.
Biostimulant Certification: Promoting Sustainable Agricultural Practices
Taking the long view, the legitimization that regulation and certifications ultimately provide can lead to greater adoption rates throughout the agricultural industry. And the potential sustainability benefits of greater biostimulant use are significant. Biostimulants can help us tackle some of agriculture’s most pressing environmental problems, including fertilizer pollution, biodiversity collapse, soil erosion, and freshwater shortages.
The biostimulant industry can learn from the experiences of other certification programs that have successfully incentivized sustainable agricultural techniques. The Organic certification movement faced similar obstacles in its early stages, but it has now become a globally recognized standard for organic products. It is not without its flaws, but certifications like these play a vital role in shifting public understanding of agriculture. The certification now adds value and legitimacy to products—something an effective biostimulant certification program must do as well.
The Road Ahead: Toward a Certified Biostimulant Industry
As the need for sustainable agricultural practices intensifies, the biostimulant industry has a unique opportunity to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of farming. By embracing a certification program, the industry can enhance its reputation, ensuring the quality and efficacy of its products.
For a certification program to be successful, growers must be involved and empowered with the necessary knowledge and resources to make sustainable changes to their existing practices. Consumer awareness is equally important. Scientifically informed consumer outreach about the benefits of biostimulants and their role in sustainable agriculture can add value and trust to certified products.
Finally, government support and collaboration between the public and private sectors are vital in certification and regulation. Regulatory bodies can provide the framework and oversight needed for an effective certification program, while brands can contribute their expertise and innovation to continuously improve the efficacy and sustainability of biostimulant products.
Impello’s Commitment to Safe and Effective Biostimulant Solutions
Ultimately, the biostimulant industry has the potential to drive positive change in agriculture, fostering environmentally friendly practices and sustainable food production. Making agriculture better is core to our mission at Impello. It is why our products are subjected to rigorous safety and quality standards and already boast some of the most widely respected certifications in the agricultural industry.
We are endlessly optimistic and excited about the potential biostimulants hold in shaping a sustainable future. The evolution of global regulations and well-constructed certification programs will play an important role in helping us get there.
Caradonia, F., Battaglia, V., Righi, L., Pascali, G., & La Torre, A. (2018). Plant Biostimulant Regulatory Framework: prospects in Europe and current situation at international level. Journal of Plant Growth Regulation, 38(2), 438–448. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00344-018-9853-4United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2019, December). Report to the President of the United States and United States Congress on Plant Biostimulants. Biological Products Industry Alliance. Retrieved July 29, 2023, from http://www.bpia.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/USDA-Farm-Bill-Biostimulant-Report.pdf
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