Unseen by the naked eye, there are enough microbials to circle the earth 10 to the 30th power times, according to Novozymes. These tiny organisms, also known as biologicals, could hold the key to unlocking crop yields—and companies are investing more time and money into discovering their potential.
“The largest market for biopesticides is conventional crops,” says Keith Jones, executive director of the Biological Products Industry Alliance. He estimates more than 400 companies are interested in biostimulants and at least 200 already have biostimulant products.
In addition to industry investment, the recently passed farm bill includes a description of the term biostimulant. This addition is intended to give products a more transparent path to market.
“That was a huge victory for us,” Jones says. “This is the first use of the term biostimulant in any U.S. law and was based on what they plan to use in Europe, so it should help with regulatory harmonization and global trade.”
While promising, biologicals still face challenges. There are several barriers to entry into the biological market, according to Jacob Parnell, senior scientist at Novozymes. Those include the following:
- Efficacy. Microbes interact with the environment, and testing doesn’t show potential negative reactions.
- Versatility. There could be some ecological trade-offs, such as the compound only working during specific plant growth stages.
- Growth. Some microbes aren’t practical to grow and might be so costly they’re not worth marketing.
- Stability. Microbes need to adapt to a wide range of conditions and application techniques without dying or losing efficacy.
- Life span. Organisms need to live through reproduction or longer to benefit the plant.
The Difference Between Biopesticides and Biostimulants
There are two general categories of biological products: biopesticides and biostimulants.
“Biopesticides are reduced risk pesticides that are naturally derived or synthetic equivalents of natural materials such as animals, plants, bacteria, fungi and certain minerals,” according to Keith Jones, executive director of the Biological Products Industry Alliance (BPIA). BPIA says biopesticides:
- Allow organic producers to control pests while maintaining certified organic status.
- Provide greater flexibility at harvest due to minimal re-entry or preharvest intervals.
- Require fewer personal protective equipment pieces for ag workers.
- Act as effective resistance management tools because of their alternate, and often multiple, modes of action.
- Can be used as a residue management tool.
“Biostimulant is a substance or substances and/or microorganism whose function when applied to seeds, plants or the rhizosphere is to stimulate natural processes to benefit nutrient uptake, efficiency, tolerance to abiotic stress and crop quality or yield,” Jones explains.
- Enhance plant growth and development.
- Improve efficiency of nutrients through better uptake or reduced losses.
- Work as soil amendments to improve soil structure, function or performance to enhance plant response.
Each of these categories has different regulatory requirements, and funding from the farm bill will help ensure they’re accurately defined and tested before product launch.