Improving nutrition and biostimulation through biomimicry

Biostimulants constitute a fast growing sector in agricultural inputs, yet many remain sceptical about their efficacy, reliability, and value for money. At the same time, foliar-applied nutrition is gaining recognition as an important contributor to crop production, rivalling soil-applied N, P and even K. As margins tighten in food production, is there a way to further improve the efficacy of these active materials, and truly maximise their value? CEO of Evoponic Ltd, Wilson Boardman, discusses his experiences of ‘biomimicry’, and the role it has to play.

“In the 1980s and 90s, I led a team of agronomists at Yieldcare, which later became UAP and then Agrii. The team came to believe that through a more holistic approach to nutrition, we could grow stronger, more robust crops capable of greater yields and quality, along with reduced pesticide usage. We proved this every year.

Keen to explore, I can honestly say that I was the biggest sceptic when it came to ‘muck and mystery’ seaweeds and other products we tried. We tried them all, and they all worked..sometimes. Inconsistency and unreliability were the issue then, not affordability.

In 1999, having sold the business, I became a micronutrient manufacturer at Micromix Plant Health and proceeded to develop improved formulations of foliar micronutrients. Following plentiful research and trials, we hit upon a high-efficiency formulation, where independent research demonstrated that 150g/ha of manganese in this new formulation left higher tissue concentrations after 14-21 days than 1500g of manganese applied as simple sulphate solution.

But how was this achieved? Mostly luck, but these new formulations used natural materials, materials that the plant ‘saw’ as natural and therefore could absorb more readily and transport more effectively. I was grateful to Professor Victoria Fernandez (Polytechnic University of Madrid) for her explanation of the mechanism, clearly an effect she described as ‘biomimicry’, and this was the first time I’d heard the term.

Biomimicry is the design and production of materials modelled on natural biological processes and can be used to create products that stimulate plant growth through a variety of mechanisms, such as mobilising nutrients, chelating heavy metals, and increasing the availability of useful metabolites. Ultimately, these mechanisms can both increase biological activity in the soil and boost plant hormonal metabolism. They can also trigger or enhance a plant’s natural defence mechanisms; for example, chitosan, a de-acetylated version of chitin, mimics the chitin found in fungal cell walls to trigger a plant to defend itself against ‘pathogenic fungi’.

It was only when we analysed replicated trial data that we discovered we were achieving statistically significant yield increases from these micronutrient formulations in the absence of any measurable deficiency, that I began to believe in the potential for effective crop biostimulation. In fact, the word ‘biostimulant’ hadn’t entered our vocabulary in 2003.

So, for the past 20 years I’ve been researching potential biostimulant materials and evaluating their properties. I remember well the first International Biostimulants Conference in Strasbourg in 2011; day one was seaweed, and day two was humic acids. How far have we moved on since?

The over-riding concern back then was to make observed effects reliable, and this is best achieved through understanding the mechanisms of uptake and translocation. Here again, biomimicry in formulation design has demonstrated the ability to create formulations that ‘do more with less’.

Efficiency is the key to affordability, as with almost all crop inputs, and thorough scientific analysis has supported the use of biomimicry to create more effective formulations; here I must acknowledge more than £1m in grant funding from Innovate UK and Horizon 2020 since 2013, won alongside numerous universities.

The analysis of both up-regulation and down-regulation of gene output, which today is affordable, has been instrumental in highlighting formulation strengths and weaknesses. This has enabled the production of the next generation of effective, cost-efficient, and reliable biostimulants to support the production of nutritious food for the future.

Unexpectedly, these same formulation technologies also worked when adapted for improved root uptake in hydroponics – another fast-developing technology, as we seek alternative systems for growing our food.

With growers continually looking for sustainable, cost-effective inputs to improve crop yield, resilience, and quality, and biostimulant manufacturers making advances in consistency and reliability, we are fast expanding our understanding of this exciting sector.”

Want to learn more? Visit Evoponic’s website.

CHAP aims to build networks of leading scientists, farmers, advisors, businesses, and academia to understand industry priorities and develop innovative solutions. To be our next guest contributor, e-mail enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.