The European Union has become the first governing body in the world to recognize plant biostimulants as a distinct category of agricultural inputs.
On July 15, 2019, the EU approved new fertilizer regulations that included a clear definition for biostimulants.
“This might not sound like very much but it’s a significant step for the industry,” said Michael Dent, analyst with IDTechEx, a market research firm based in the United Kingdom.
“For the first time there is an official consensual definition as to what a biostimulant product actually is and how it can contribute to crop protection and crop production.”
Biostimulants differ from conventional synthetic fertilizers in that they are natural products that improve the crop itself rather than applying nutrients to the soil.
In a recent webinar, Dent said there is a “dizzying array” of biostimulants on the market accompanied by all sorts of performance claims.
Regulations in many jurisdictions do not have suitable quality parameters or evidence requirements for biostimulants and that is leading to products of questionable quality, resulting in grower mistrust of the industry.
“This is quite a large problem for biostimulant manufacturers, particularly those that have invested in solid evidence and good science for their products,” said Dent.
He believes the new EU regulations address that shortcoming and hopes that model will spread to the rest of the world.
Loreta Gudynaite-Savitch, regulatory affairs manager with Bayer Crop Science, said biostimulants are regulated as supplements in Canada under the Fertilizers Act.
“In Canada, even though we don’t have a definition of biostimulants, we are in a much better position on these products than the EU or the U.S.,” she said.
Gudynaite-Savitch added that later this year a modernization of Canada’s fertilizer regulations will be published in the Canada Gazette Part II.
“There are lots of positive changes there as well,” she noted.
One issue that will not be addressed in the modernization is how to deal with microbial products that have dual properties. Many new products offer both crop fertilization and crop protection traits.
Under the current rules, manufacturers have to choose whether their product will be regulated through the Fertilizers Act and approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or through the Pest Control Products Act and approved by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.
“You cannot claim both properties on the label,” said Gudynaite-Savitch.
Canada’s Fertilizer and Supplement Advisory Committee is working with the CFIA and the PMRA on developing a process that would allow for dual registrations on one label.
The U.S. appears to be taking a completely different approach than the EU in regulating biostimulants, said Dent. There is no distinct framework for regulating the products. They have to fit into existing pathways.
That has led to problems such as exaggerated performance claims and a buyer-beware environment. Growers are forced to research the products in a fragmented and crowded marketplace.
“The wrong choice of biostimulant can lead to little or no benefit for the crop,” he said.
Many biostimulants are unforgiving. They have to be applied in specific ways at specific times.
“If applied wrongly they can have absolutely no effect whatsoever,” said Dent.
They also may not be compatible with synthetic chemicals. For instance, a microbial product that is applied with a chemical that is toxic to microbes nullifies the impact of the biostimulant.
Those are some of the reasons why he thinks other countries should be following the EU’s lead.
“Regulations are absolutely key in the success of the biostimulants industry because it creates a system where farmers and growers can trust what it is they’re buying,” said Dent.