Rows of young soybean plants

Biological Products: The New Tool of Agriculture

Just mentioning the word biologicals in an agriculture conversation can invoke various responses that range from silence to enthusiasm and anything in between. To be clear, a biological is a product that contains beneficial, naturally occurring microorganisms or microbial derivatives as active ingredients.

Whether an individual is skeptical about or in favor of biologicals, the fact is that agriculture companies have shown an increased interest in these products in the past decade. In that time frame investments in this sector have stimulated a surge in the development of various types of new biological products. Hundreds of startup companies selling biological products have also popped up.

Biologicals, such as inoculums for legumes, are not new to the agriculture industry, so why all the hype right now? New research tools, like genomic sequencing, have provided the ability to understand the vast diversity of microbiology and its functions in agricultural systems.

The theory around biologicals is that certain microorganisms perform beneficial functions that should increase functions within the soil or plant; by applying these microorganisms to various cropping systems, they provide increased plant health and vigor that could supplement or offer an alternative to conventional fertilizers and pesticides. The theory assumes that these products have a lower impact on the environment during production and after application.

If biologicals are so great, why are they not utilized more? There are a few reasons why producers are not jumping on the biological bandwagon yet. The first hurdle is lack of understanding and confusion about biologicals in general. The second hurdle is that there is little to no information on the effectiveness of these products. The last obstacle is the inconsistency of product performance in different environments and soil conditions.

Unfortunately, the biological market is very confusing because of the various jargon utilized, starting with the term biological. Again, the definition of a biological is a product that contains beneficial, naturally occurring microorganisms or microbial derivatives as active ingredients. Biologicals are also referred to as probiotics, biofertilizers, biofungicides, biocontrols, and biostimulants. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, which adds to the confusion.

The two major types of biologicals are biostimulants and biopesticides. Biostimulants are biologicals that enhance a plant’s growth, health, and productivity; this category includes biofertilizers, fulvic acid, microbial inoculants, plant growth regulators, and others. It is important to know that biostimulants that are labeled only for growth promotion and without a claim for pest control may not be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In contrast, biopesticides are biologicals that protect against or directly control pests, such as bacterial and fungal pathogens, insects, and weeds. Biopesticides are generally subject to EPA registration and regulation, and are referred to as bioherbicides, bioinsecticides, and biofungicides. Products that provide both a biostimulant and biopesticide are less common.

It is important to note that biological products are as beneficial to conventional production as to organic systems. Organic systems tend to utilize biologicals more because of the limited pest management options.

If biologicals are used in conventional production, make sure they are compatible with the chemicals used in the operation and do not significantly increase input costs. Biologicals are recommended as a supplement to conventional chemicals, not as a replacement.

As with many products in agriculture, the success of biologicals depends on applying them at the right time, place, and concentration. However, biologicals are different than other products because they may contain live organisms that need to survive through the application process and then thrive in the environment.

The microorganisms need to attain large populations in the environment to show observable effects on crop productivity. Many factors, such as temperature, pH, organic matter, salt concentration, and moisture, affect the survival of different microorganisms. These factors are why biologicals may have inconsistent results and comprise an active area of research.

The investment and market direction toward biologicals indicates that these products will play a significant role in crop production in the future. Take time to learn more about biologicals and if they could benefit your operation.

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