Biostimulants were virtually unheard of just a few short decades ago. But their use as agricultural amendments has grown rapidly in the last 10-15 years.
The term “biostimulant” refers to any either natural or synthetic materials and organisms with plant growth-promoting effects, including amino acids, algae extracts, and beneficial microorganisms. Biostimulants can enhance yields, soil fertility, nutrient use efficiency, and plant tolerance to different environmental stressors.
These benefits partially explain the recent surge in biostimulant use but are not the full story. The full story includes changing agricultural regulations, technological innovation, and global efforts to improve the sustainability of our food systems.
In this article, we explore why the use of biostimulants is growing, why it is happening now, and if the trend is likely to continue. By examining the challenges and opportunities this growth has created, we’ll provide a realistic look at the future potential of biostimulants, along with advice to growers looking to make sense of the rapidly expanding number of biostimulant products on the market.
Changing Regulations Encourage Biostimulant Solutions
Biostimulant products have been held back by the lack of a binding definition of what exactly a biostimulant is (our guide to plant biostimulants covers this in detail). But this is changing. As the body of biostimulant research matures, regulations governing their classification and use are beginning to evolve. Notably, the European Union and the United States have both made changes to agricultural frameworks to reflect the benefits of biostimulant use.
In 2022 the EU enacted the Fertilizing Products Regulation (FPR) program. The FPR includes biostimulants, offering an official definition and designation of biostimulant products, and allows companies to access the common market of all EU member states.
In the US, biostimulants were included in the 2018 Farm Bill, which defined biostimulant products as: "A substance or micro-organism that, when applied to seeds, plants, or the rhizosphere, stimulates natural processes to enhance or benefit nutrient uptake, nutrient efficiency, tolerance to abiotic stress, or crop quality and yield."
In both cases, the inclusion of biostimulants is significant. This indicates that policy is catching up to the science, where the potential efficacy of biostimulants like microbial inoculants, humic substances, and seaweed extracts is now well documented. Formal regulatory environments for biostimulants—with official definitions, approval systems, and consistent labeling—are providing greater awareness of their potential benefits and greater producer access to reliable products.
Using Biostimulants to Achieve Sustainable Agricultural Targets
Recent advancements within biostimulant regulatory frameworks coincide with the global push to accelerate sustainable agricultural practices. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are major drivers of climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil degradation. To mitigate this, countries around the world are enacting fertilizer and pesticide reduction targets. For example, the EU’s Farm to Fork program is pushing for a 20% decrease in chemical fertilizer use and a 50% decrease in chemical pesticide use throughout the Union’s 28 member states by 2030.
Similar targets are being advocated for in the US. But these reductions will not merely happen on their own. New products and on-farm practices are needed to maintain—if not increase—yields while cutting fertilizer and pesticide use. By improving nitrogen fixation rates, nutrient use efficiency, and plant stress tolerance, among other benefits, biostimulants can help in bridging that gap.
Biostimulants and On-Farm Benefits
Through a combination of evolving regulations and ecological imperatives detailed above, the biostimulant market is expected to grow by billions of dollars over the coming decade. But this only happens if growers experience firsthand benefits: they need to see biostimulants improve crop quality, yields, on-farm sustainability, and ultimately, their economic bottom line.
Specialty growers have often been the first to experience these benefits and are at the forefront of biostimulant adoption. They are often willing to experiment to drive improvements in crop performance, as small improvements to yields and quality traits (color, flavor, and aroma) can bring outsized benefits to fruit and vegetable crops.
From Specialty to Field Crops
While biostimulants found early traction amongst growers of specialty crops like tomatoes, wine grapes, and cannabis, their use remains underutilized among field crops. For example, a 2019 survey found that nearly 80% of Spanish tomato growers used biostimulants, while use rates for wheat and barley hovered around 10%.
Field crops like wheat, barley, corn, and soy are critical to meeting the caloric demands of a growing global population. They are also threatened by the abiotic and biotic stresses being magnified by climate change. Biostimulants are poised to play an essential role if we are to successfully reduce fertilizer and pesticide use and adapt to challenging growing conditions, all while maintaining or increasing yields.
Much of the future growth in biostimulant use will be fueled by product innovation aimed at the field crop scale and knowledge mobilization—arming growers with the ability to incorporate biostimulants into their pest management and fertilization programs.
Innovation is Driving Biostimulant Adoption
The acceleration of research and development in agricultural biotechnology is also encouraging biostimulant adoption. As our understanding of the mechanisms at work behind different compounds and microbial species evolves, the efficacy of biostimulant products continues to improve dramatically.
Technological advancements are facilitating the creation of effective biostimulants that did not exist even a decade or two ago. Take monosilicic acid as an example. Silicon is an important plant nutrient with the potential to enhance yields and improve plant resilience to heat, salinity, and drought. It even has antibiotic qualities and is often used to replace or supplement synthetic pesticides. Although silicon is abundant in almost all soil types, very little of it is bioavailable. But thanks to new production processes, we can now create a fully bioavailable—thus far more effective—form of silicon as monosilicic acid: the base of Impello’s Dune formulation.
Likewise, our understanding of the soil microbiome, while still in relative infancy, is expanding exponentially. Through DNA sequencing and advanced culturomic techniques, we can now better identify and successfully cultivate beneficial soil microbes. We are also learning how different species interact with each other. Microbial inoculants like Impello’s Continuμm™ consist of a consortium of beneficial bacteria rather than a single species. They can be finely tuned to encourage plant growth and soil diversity in exciting new ways.
As biostimulant research advances, innovative products will only continue to improve crop performance. Biostimulant adoption will increase, which, hopefully, will contribute to global reductions of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use and healthier crops.
Biostimulants and the Future: Challenges and Opportunities
North American growers can look to trends in Europe, where policies promoting ecologically sound growing practices and ever-expanding consumer demands for organic food are leading to massive increases in biostimulant use. The US market is quickly moving in the same direction.
As the market for biostimulants grows and diversifies, the number of biostimulant products on the market grows as well. This is helping advance innovation and performance, but not all new products are made equal.
As more companies enter the space, it will likely become challenging to identify and separate the metaphorical “wheat from the chaff”. With an appropriate regulatory environment, commercial biostimulant products are unlikely to be unsafe, but they can very well be detrimental to plant and soil health or simply ineffective—a waste of resources and money. This is why creating biostimulants supported by research and data—in the lab and out in the field—is fundamental to every Impello product. Biostimulants are a critical piece to a better, more sustainable agricultural system, but they are not a panacea. As we often see in other sustainable techniques and products (think no-till, biochar, cover cropping, etc.), the hype sometimes outpaces the science, resulting in proponents exaggerating the benefits.
Growers should be wary of companies positioning their products as a “be-all and end-all” solution. Instead, look for biostimulants backed by science. Third-party field trials, lab-tested ingredients, and appropriate certifications from organizations like the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) are all things worth watching for.
This science-first mindset is what guides us at Impello. We believe in the tremendous potential of biostimulants to make agriculture better, but only when rigorously tested and used in conjunction with other sustainable growing practices.
In addition to developing high-performing and sustainable biostimulant products, we are passionate about helping growers fully realize the potential of those products. Our Education Center is full of research-backed articles on biostimulant use. If you have more questions about how to get started with biostimulants on your farm, don’t hesitate to reach out. Drop us a line at email@example.com and our expert team can help you identify the appropriate biostimulant solutions for you amidst an ever-growing sea of options.
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