Biologicals: The New Green Revolution or Snake Oil
for Ag? Reflections from Agricultural Stakeholders
Doll JE1*, Ulbrich TC1,2, Reimer AP1,3
1WK Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University, USA
2Department of Integrative Biology, Michigan State University, USA
3National Wildlife Foundation, Ann Arbor, USA
Submission: September 12, 2020; Published: September 17, 2020
*Corresponding author: Doll JE, WK Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University, Hickory Corners, MI 49060, USA, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
How to cite this article: Doll J, Ulbrich T, Reimer A. Biologicals: The New Green Revolution or Snake Oil for Ag? Reflections from Agricultural Stakeholders.
Agri Res & Tech: Open Access J. 2020; 25 (1): 556293. DOI: 10.19080/ARTOAJ.2020.25.556293
Modern agricultural systems are increasingly reliant on inputs and technological developments from private industry. In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in the market for inputs (seed treatments and inoculants, foliar sprays, etc.) derived from biological (especially microbial) origins, so-called “biological” products. Farmer use of these emerging technologies and farmer advisors’ views of these products have not been systematically investigated. We report an exploratory effort to understand this emerging market and agricultural stakeholders’ perspectives on these new products. This research revealed significant communication and information disconnects between agricultural stakeholders and the farmers with whom they work. Four major themes emerged from our research:
a.the biologicals market is competitive and growing;
b.retailer and advisor knowledge of product development and mechanisms is lacking;
c.definitions of key terms are complex and contested; and
d.product efficacy is largely evaluated on production impacts (i.e. yield).
Keywords:Agricultural stakeholders, Green Revolution, Biologicals, Microbial Products, Seed Treatment, Soil Health, Field crops
Modern agricultural systems, in particular row cropping systems producing grain and oilseed commodities, are increasingly reliant on chemical inputs and technological developments from private industry . Concurrently, the recent focus on soil health from public and private sectors alike has brought biology to the forefront of agriculture. Key to improving the biology of soil is a vibrant microbial community, teeming with beneficial bacteria and fungi that promote plant growth and protect the plant from pests . While basic principles of soil health are well defined , researchers understand only a sliver of the diverse, complex microbial community in soils .
There are two main ways managing the soil microbial community is being promoted to farmers: manage and improve
the soil environment to enhance the existing microbes or add microbes to the plant-soil system via external inputs. While managing the quality of soil microbial communities has long been identified as a key to building a sustainable agricultural system
[3,5], there has recently been a rapid growth in the market for cropping system inputs derived from microbial origins, so-called “biologicals” or “microbial” products1. These inputs include seed treatments and seed inoculants, foliar sprays, and soil additives intended to boost crop production through a range of mechanisms [6-8].
These biological products are increasingly being touted in popular science and farm press as the new future for agriculture, even being referred to as the next green revolution [10,11]. Are farmers using these products? What do they, and the professionals who advise them, understand and believe about biologicals?
To date, farmer use of these emerging technologies and farmer
advisors’ views of these products have not been systematically
investigated. Farmers increasingly rely on private sector advisors
for a wide range of recommendations [12,13], so these advising
relationships have the potential to increase the pace at which
these new technologies are adopted by farmers, with important
ramifications for the sustainability of major cropping systems.
1Other products can also be characterized as biologically based, including green manures and biologically derived stimulants, but we are particularly interested in products derived from living microbial inoculum used to benefit cropping systems.
To address this knowledge gap, we used an exploratory
research effort to identify the current market for biologicals
in row-crop systems in the US Midwest and to understand the
perspectives of important agricultural stakeholders on these
products. In 2018 we held a roundtable discussion bringing
together university scientists, university Extension educators,
agricultural retailers, and professional crop advisors from Michigan
and Indiana to discuss biological products and their current
role in Midwestern cropping systems. These discussions and an
additional focus group with four Michigan farmers conducted
before the roundtable, revealed significant communication and
information disconnects between agricultural stakeholders,
including differing perspectives on how product efficacy should
be evaluated. Identifying these areas of disagreement are critically
important to understand the potential role of these technologies
for advancing agricultural production and sustainability. The
research presented here represents a first effort at understanding
these perspectives and whether agriucultural stakeholders view
these products as a potential “green revolution” or simply as
In this article, we present four major themes that have
emerged from our research:
a. the biologicals market is competitive and growing;
b. retailer and advisor knowledge of product development
and mechanisms is lacking;
c. definitions of key terms, including biological products,
are complex and contested; and
d. product efficacy is largely evaluated on production
impacts (i.e. yield). We close this research note by outlining our
agenda for advancing knowledge in this emerging agricultural
Biologicals are being developed by a wide range of firms,
from small start-ups to large multi-national conglomerates. The
wide range of product developers leads to high levels of product
differentiation, and subsequently, confusion among advisors and
farmers. Our participants said that the product market has grown
exponentially in the previous 18-24 months; advisors indicated
that they have been overwhelmed by the number of available
products and have struggled to understand the range of available
products. Retailers indicated that they are often contacted by
developers promoting their products, especially smaller start-ups.
Large seed and product developers, such as Pioneer-Dow (now
Corteva) and Monsanto (now Bayer), have also rapidly expanded
their available biological products in the past few years: now, new
corn varieties all have a biological treatment on their seeds .
While biologically based products are wide ranging, the market
seems most mature in the seed treatment area, particularly as
seed companies have invested in biologicals. Participants noted
that rhizobia inoculants have been used in soybean production
systems for years but have generally not been considered as
‘biologicals’ in the way new products are being developed and
marketed. This disconnect in marketing between products with
similar origins is striking and reflects the distinct new market for
products intended to increase soil microbial activity as a means to
enhance crop production.
On-the-ground understanding of biological product
development & mechanisms is lacking?
Fast developments in the input and seed treatment
marketplaces, along with corporate concerns over proprietary
science and product information, have resulted in a lack of
understanding and awareness of new products, their intended
modes of action, and the science behind the reported increases in
yield or performance. This was especially clear among university
Extension professionals, who were aware that such products
existed but mostly did not know the extent of the current
market. Biological products were most often framed in terms of
their mode of application (i.e. seed treatment or soil inoculant)
rather than their intended mechanism or mode of action (e.g.
fungicide or early growth stimulation). While largely unaware of
the intended modes of action, farm advisors and retailers largely
trusted certain product lines. In particular, existing relationships
with certain suppliers and product developers informed trust in
certain product lines, especially those developed by large seed
or product companies with a long track record. Both public and
private farmer advisors and farmers were unaware of the extent to
which biological treatments, if any, were on corn seed. Indeed, they
voiced much skepticism that a biological seed treatment would
be on the seed they buy unless they had specifically ordered it.
Scientists were aware of the potential modes of actions that could
be delivered by biological products, but they were cautious about
seed treatments based on single or few species and successful
establishment of a few microbes into a complex soil system.
Definitions of key terms, including “biologicals”, are
complex and contested
While industry rhetoric and company marketing materials
regularly tout “biologicals” as an important development in
agricultural technology, participants found it difficult to establish
a clear definition of the term. It was apparent during the facilitated
discussion that the term “biologicals” was not common parlance
among the participating advisors or the farmers they work with.
Instead, on-the-ground advising appeared to largely revolve
around product categories based on delivery system (e.g. seed
treatments, soil amendments, foliar sprays, etc.) rather than the
provenance of the product or even the intended mode of action in
some cases. Therefore, it was challenging for many participants to
differentiate whether a product was biologically-based or “hard
chemistry”. Even within these delivery-based product categories,
the term “biologicals” did not necessarily add clarity. Retailers
and advisors were often still unclear of how products worked and
what science underlies the product. This was especially evident
in the area of seed treatments. These products are typically
bundled with a particular seed product line (along with other nonmicrobially
based treatments), making it difficult to differentiate
the mechanisms and efficacy of biological vsersus “hard chemistry”
treatments. Advisors often indicated that they thought there were
microbially-derived treatments on various seed product lines but
were not entirely sure what they were or how they worked.
Another particularly important area of confusion was the
relationship between microbe-based products and genetically
modified (GM) products such as BT corn2. In our facilitated
discussion, there was considerable disagreement over whether
GM products that incorporate microbial genetics into crop genetics
counted as biological, not only between stakeholder groups but
within groups (e.g. not all scientists agreed about what constituted
a biological/microbial product). The incorporation of new areas
of science, a low level of understanding of soil microbial systems
among most stakeholders, and different types of knowledges
among stakeholder groups contributed to the difficulty of defining
key terms. Importantly, many participants indicated that they had
not had conversations about biological products with others in
the past. This lack of ongoing dialogue among and between key
agricultural stakeholders exacerbates the inherent difficulties of
defining, describing, and developing a broad and emerging area
Product efficacy is largely based on local trials and
trust in existing stakeholder relationships
One of our key discussion questions was how various
stakeholders evaluate the efficacy of biological products. How
do they define whether a product is working or not and how do
they determine this? Most product developers are not marketing
to farmers directly, but to retailers, Extension educators, and crop
advisors. Due to the scale and diversity in products and product
developers, most advisors did not feel confident in vouching for
the efficacy of most available products. This was especially true
with seed treatments, which are most often bundled with the seed
product lines, making it difficult to determine the effectiveness of
any particular treatment. Among retailers in particular, there was
more confidence in products developed by large companies, such
as multinational seed companies than in products from start-ups
or small firms. This confidence was largely based on established
corporate relationships and trust in robust private sector science,
even if the individuals did not have a deep understanding of this
science themselves. Retailers and private sector advisors indicated
that product developers typically provide information about
the scientific basis of the product and data indicating how the
product has performed in trials. It was clear during our discussion
however that this information is not always well understood by
the retailers or advisors and often does not seem to be carefully
evaluated. Crop advisors in particular seemed to discount this
information, preferring to evaluate product efficacy in local
production settings. These advisors acknowledged the difficulty
in this form of local trialing and experimentation: most advisors
in both the private and public sector had not rigorously evaluated
most products themselves, in part due to the vast diversity of
available products and limited time and resources to devote to
This research shows that agricultural advisors are curious
about biologically based agricultural products, but that limited
understanding of product terminology and mechanisms,
overwhelming marketing agendas, and lack of local efficacy
trials makes them skeptical to promote the products to farmers.
Therefore, because the science and markets for biologically based
agricultural products are rapily developing  but the state of
agricultural advisors’ knowledge and trust for biologicals has not
changed since our interviews in 2017 [11,15, 16], there is a critical
need to focus on the human dimensions of these technological
advancements. Farmer-advisor relationships (especially between
farmers and private sector retailers and crop advisors) play a
critical role in on-farm decision making; it is therefore vitally
important to also understand the knowledge, perspectives, and
attitudes of these advisors on biologicals. Moreover, it is important
to understand how agricultural stakeholders of all types view the
role of microbial systems in crop production systems, particularly
in light of the growing emphasis on soil health [3,9]. Farmer
perceptions of these products will play a key role in their adoption
and integration into modern cropping systems, but the pace
of technology development and opaqueness of the underlying
science behind these technologies may place more of the decisionmaking
burden on advisors in both the public and private sector.
Continued engagement and dialogue between university scientists
and Extension educators, retailers, crop advisors, and industry
scientists will be critical in building a shared understanding of
these new products and their role in advancing cropping system
2Bt corn is genetically engineered to include genes isolated from a bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis. The addition of these bacterial genes makes the crop
toxic to many insects (FAO).
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation’s
Kellogg Biological Station Long Term Ecological Research Site
(NSF grant no. DEB 1832042) and Michigan State University
AgBioResearch. Thanks to S. Hanks for logistical support and to all
participants of the discussions.
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