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There’s an old story about a scientist who advocated an unproven theory with no support from his peers. “How does it feel to go out on a limb?” emailed a colleague.
After peer studies eventually proved the theory correct, the scientist finally replied to the email.
“Crowded,” he wrote.
This story is akin to what’s happened in the agricultural biostimulant space. Historically, such products have prompted eye rolls by scientists skeptical of untested “bugs-in-a-jug” concoctions that solely padded the profits of the companies selling them.
“The reality is that a huge percentage of theseoverpromised and underdelivered in the eyes of the grower,” says Mike Miille, CEO of Joyn Bio, a joint venture between Ginkgo Bioworks and Leaps by Bayer that’s testing biologically based nitrogen (N) sources. “That leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, and those memories don’t quickly go away.”
This changed in 2012, when large players entered the market. Bayer bought AgraQuest. BASF acquired Becker Underwood. Syngenta purchased Pasteuria Bioscience. Others followed in subsequent years.
“As soon as the companies that growers had relied on for other products entered the area, farmers became interested in the technology,” says Miille.
Venture capital is also fueling new entrants into this space. For example, Pivot Bio, which sells microbes aiming to replace a share of crop-applied synthetic nitrogen, closed this summer on $430 million in Series D investor funding, bringing its total equity raised to more than $600 million.
Whether they’re called biologicals, microbials, or microbiome activators, all products fall under the banner of biostimulants. This space has a market value of $1.5 billion and an annual growth rate of 15%, says Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO of BioConsortia, a microbial firm.
Historically, this category comprises many products, including the well-known rhizobial bacteria that complement soybeans to fix N.
The field is expanding, with firms selling products such as root-zone bacteria that capture atmospheric N, compounds touted as making phosphorus more available, and products with plant stress reduction claims. These biostimulants are added as seed treatments, in furrow with starter fertilizers, or by foliar applications.
“Abiotic stressors such as heat, cold, and drought are now being successfully addressed through biostimulants,” says Corey Huck, head of global biologicals for Syngenta. “It’s similar to human health where, rather than solely making drugs and vaccines, companies also concentrate on first making humans healthier, whether through vitamins or probiotics or healthier living. The same applies to plants.”
The science behind biostimulants is now more advanced, says Carl Rosen, a University of Minnesota (U of M) soil scientist.
“All this is being stimulated by all the new technologies that we have to analyze DNA and more understanding about the microbial community structure and environment,” he says.
Back to Biology
When Lance Dobson graduated from college in 2011 to farm with his father, Mark, near Lexington, Missouri, he intensified the farm’s field mapping and soil sampling. The duo found that fields that included high phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels induced by commercial fertilizer often weren’t the highest yielding on their farm. Instead, high yields occurred in fields with a livestock grazing history or in high organic matter areas that had not eroded.
That prompted the Dobsons to use Pivot Bio’s Proven, a biological product that company officials say nabs atmospheric N for corn plant use. The Dobsons say it enabled them to save 25 pounds per acre of actual N from fall-applied anhydrous ammonia application.
“Knowing that we had that extra 25 pounds per acre [from the microbial product] gave us the courage to reduce upfront [fall-applied] nitrogen,” says Lance Dobson. “We aren’t quite there yet [to further reduce commercial N applications], but going forward, we’re also planning to incorporate cover crops and incorporate livestock on our farm. We’re looking at how to get more biology into our farm.”
Biostimulants aren’t as easy to handle as synthetic chemistry.
“Ours is a living, breathing product,” says Ernie Sanders, Pivot Bio vice president of product development. Direct sunlight and high temperatures can negatively impact product viability, he adds.
Shelf life for most biostimulant products also is limited to one year.
“We are working to develop products with longer shelf life,” says Jason Ward, North American commercial operations lead for Novozymes BioAg. Still, it’s a challenge meeting the three- to five-year shelf life that some synthetic chemistries have, he adds.
Performance questions also linger. Some biostimulants, such as soybean rhizobial inoculants, are time-tested and grounded in independent unbiased trials, says Caley Gasch, North Dakota State University soil scientist. These particularly work well when rhizobia populations have been decimated, such as in prevent-plant acres, she adds.
That’s not the case for other products, she says. “When it comes to mycorrhizal fungi, microbials, and other kinds of biostimulant products, we don’t have a lot of consistent evidence that those applications are effective,” says Gasch. “They might offer some yield boosts in one year in one field, but across the board, it’s hard to say that those treatments are effective. One reason is because we have such mind-blowing diversity of beneficial microbes in our soils naturally.”
Introduced biostimulants also face existing microbes that may resist their arrival.
“I use the analogy of dropping a troop of Girl Scouts into the Amazon and saying to them: Survive!” says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a U of M Extension educator.
Gasch notes that native microbes are always colonizing and recolonizing areas of fields.
“The ones that are best adapted to those local conditions are going to survive and thrive,” she says. “If you imagine a slurry of foreign microbes being dumped into a soil that’s full of competitive, well adapted, very fit microbes, there may be a bit of a battle. By adding microbes, you are adding a little bit of fertility, but the locals are eventually going to win.”
Meadows-Smith notes that microbes do compete for space and food.
“We are looking for microbes to colonize the plant and gain a competitive advantage once they are there,” he says. This will squeeze out any other microbes that attempt to colonize, he adds.
Costs and Benefits
Biostimulant costs vary, depending on type and touted benefits.
The manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for Proven Bio’s Proven product in 2021was $20 per acre, although incentives brought it down to $13 per acre, say company officials. NewLeaf Symbiotics’ 2022 MSRP is $4.35 per acre on corn and soybeans for its microbial-based Tarrasym products. Sound Agriculture’s 2022 MSRP for its Source microbial stimulator is $14 per acre on corn and $10 per acre on soybeans.
There’s more to consider than product cost, says Sanders.
Pivot Bio officials say spiking fertilizer prices are zooming past the 52¢-per-pound equivalent farmers glean by saving 25 pounds per acre (of commercial N) with use of its Proven line of products.
These products also help farmers better manage risk, says Ryan Ridder, Corteva Agriscience product manager for fungicide and biologicals.
Next year, Corteva plans to market Utrisha N, a biological foliar product that fixes atmospheric N and converts it to ammonium for use in corn and other crops. This can help ease concerns about commercial N losses that may occur through leaching or volatilization, says Ridder.
“It’s a way to protect your [crop] investment and enhance your corn midseason with nitrogen,” he adds.
Such biological products may also help farmers cope with potential regulation triggered by nutrients leaching into groundwater or into water bodies, says Meadows-Smith.
“No grower wants that to happen, because it’s also money running away from them,” he adds.
What to Do?
Sorting through all these products is akin to grabbing a salmon swimming through a speedy stream.
“Evaluation of these products needs to be based on multiple years and replicated studies,” says Rosen. “Just don’t rely on testimonials.”
Biostimulants work best when applied to crops under stress, such as during drought or under cold temperatures, says Ward.
Microbial products best fit crop rotations where legumes, such as soybeans, have been lacking, says Ward.
“If it’s been a while since you’ve grown legumes in a rotation, the population of wild [microbial] types will be less,” he adds.
Farmers should consider steps that first need to be made to remedy a fertilizer program, says Jeff Divan, director of agronomy for Sound Agriculture.
“If you’re already making large applications of fertilizer that put you at a pound and a half of nitrogen per bushel [of corn], there are other opportunities to reduce that amount before you add any kind of microbe or biostumulant,” he says.
Consider equipment, too: Products that can be added to planter boxes or spray tanks reduce application costs.
“If you have to make an extra pass or add a lot of hardware to your machinery to do it, the returns start to diminish,” says Divan.
Sanders sees a shift occurring among future agricultural crop inputs. “They’re not going to be petroleum based like a lot of previous products,” he says. “We’re just on the tip of a new wave of biological products.”
Biostimulants have established a new level of credibility, says Miille.
“The challenge I see is there still are no blockbusters,” he says. “You still don’t have any big [biostimulant] products out there on the same scale as a strobilurin fungicide or a Roundup herbicide.”
One factor favoring biostimulants is that they fit with changing consumer tastes, he adds.
“Right or wrong, many consumers will ask, ‘Do I have pesticide residues on my food?’ ” Miille says. “One of the biggest reasons consumers buy organic food is that they think about pesticide levels and the health impact of it. Those of us who are working on the product and the innovation side can’t lose sight of what the consumer is thinking.”
Biostimulants include the following categories:
Nitrogen manufacture and efficiency products. Pivot Bio is building upon its Proven nitrogen (N) product by launching a new 2022 version, Proven 40.
“Bacteria called heterotrophs can take nitrogen out of the air, make ammonia, and feed themselves,” says Ernie Sanders, Pivot Bio vice president of product development. “We thought, what if we reprogram them to colonize near corn roots so the ammonia they excrete outside the cells could be taken up [as ammonium] by corn plants? We did, and you have all these tiny Haber-Bosch [the industrial ammonia production process] plants making ammonia and feeding N into the corn plants.”
Gene editing will allow microbes to control the amount of N they deliver to the crop plant, says Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO of BioConsortia, which is collaborating with Mosaic to develop N-fixation microbes. “This allows precise placement of nitrogen that many microbes can do, but do not do in corn and wheat because it is energy-intensive to do so,” he says.
Microbial stimulators. Sound Agriculture markets Source, a shelf-stable biochemistry that stimulates existing soil microbes to unlock unavailable nutrients, say company officials.
“It wakes up microbes that already exist in the soil,” says Jeff Divan, director of agronomy for Sound Agriculture. “This activity helps to solubilize more nutrients in the soil and get them into the plant.”
M-trophs. Pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs (M-trophs) help boost root mass and enhance nutrient uptake, says Matt Helms, chief commercial officer of NewLeaf Symbiotics. Benefits include more root mass and enhanced nutrient uptake, he says.
“This year, our [Terrasym] products were applied to seed treatments or in furrow, but we have a planter box application in 2022,” says Helms. This will be a lot more convenient for farmers, as they can now mix it with seed and lubricants such as talc and graphite.”
Plant metabolism modifiers. Through its Valagro subsidiary, Syngenta sells YieldOn, a biostimulant for corn and soybeans derived from plants and seaweed extracts. Syngenta officials say this foliar product, which can be applied alone or with a fungicide, modulates cell metabolism. This improves the transport of sugars and nutrients that ultimately boost yield, they add.
Mycorrhizal fungi. “Mycorrhizal is the queen of biologicals,” says Yossi Kofman, cofounder and CEO of Groundwork BioAg. Arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi extend the reach of roots by capturing nutrients roots could not access.
It had always been a struggle to enhance the natural process and add mycorrhizae in high volumes into the soil, says Kofman. That changed in 2015 with a process Groundwork BioAg developed to commercialize mycorrhizal inoculants under the Rootella brand.
It’s also possible to stack them with bacterial nitrogen products, since mycorrhizae are fungal microbes, he says. That leaves potential for microbial stacks, akin to those in insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant traits, he adds.
Phosphate stimulators. “These help make phosphate more soluble and more accessible to the plant,” says Jason Ward, North American commercial operations lead for Novozymes BioAg. Its Tag Team product teams with what Novozymes officials say is a phosphate-solubilizing microbe, Penicillium bilaie, with N-fixing rhizobia.
Biological products aim at controlling pests such as insects and disease, just as synthetic chemicals do.
Their use is rapidly growing, as the $3.5 billion biopesticide market grows at an annual 10% to 15% clip, says Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO of BioConsortia, a microbial firm.
The knock against bio-pesticides: Pest control pales when compared with synthetic chemistries, such as insecticides and fungicides.
“Synthetic chemistries set the standard for [pest] control,” says Jason Ward, North American commercial operations lead for Novozymes BioAg. “That’s the standard that we continue to pursue on a daily basis.”
Still, synthetic chemistry has drawbacks. It globally struggles with resistance in weeds, insects, and diseases, says Mike Miille, CEO of Joyn Bio.
“Growers can rotate bio-pesticides [with chemistry] and reduce resistance issues,” he says.
Soil Structure First
Farmers who want beneficial soil microbial populations can get them by building soil structure, says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension educator. Steps include:
Reducing tillage by keeping more than 40% cover on the soil.
Diversifying crop rotations.
Planting cover crops.
Applying carbon sources, such as livestock manure or green manure.
Adding livestock if possible.
“There are 9 billion microbes in just 1 cup of soil,” she says. “You just have to build a home for them. Creating structure in your soil creates many environments for a variety of microbes to thrive.”
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