Companies that make biologically derived products designed to enhance soil and plant nutrition are backing a bill that would establish a definition and a regulatory pathway for those products.

The Plant Biostimulant Act has been introduced in the House by Reps. Jim Baird, R-Ind., and Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif. In the Senate, an identical bill is sponsored by Senators Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Mike Braun, R-Ind.

Katie Milner, a spokesperson for Baird, said the congressman “is exploring a few different pathways to get this bill across the finish line, especially as we gear up for the farm bill.” She called the bill “an easy bipartisan win.”

USDA and EPA estimate the worldwide plant biostimulant market could be worth $5 billion by 2025, but despite that growth, “the path to market for such products in the U.S. remains unpredictable and inconsistent,” according to a news release from the House and Senate sponsors.

Panetta said “the lack of a standard regulatory definition or pathway to market for plant biostimulants makes accessing this innovative technology difficult for the sustainable agriculture industry.”

Jim BairdRep. Jim Baird, R-Ind.Plant biostimulants such as nitrogen-fixing microbes have been touted as a way to reduce both pesticide and fertilizer use, sometimes significantly. “The use of plant biostimulant technologies has also shown promise in sustainability management practices such as carbon sequestration and water quality improvement,” the release said.

The bill “would create a uniform process for approving commercial plant biostimulant use as an alternative to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and conducting research on the technology’s benefits for soil health,” the lawmakers said.

The bill is supported by a wide range of industry groups, who say that the lack of a clear regulatory structure is hindering development of the technologies, delaying their introduction.

“Plant biostimulant products and technologies face several challenges that can hinder their uses in commercial agriculture, home gardens, turf, and ornamental applications,” chief among them “the lack of a consistent and predictable path to market for plant biostimulant products in the United States,” 13 groups said in a letter of support earlier this month.

The groups called the farm bill “the most logical place for inclusion.”

“Our hope has always been that it would be taken up in the next farm bill,” said Keith Jones, executive director of the Biological Products Industry Alliance.

In the U.S., his members are faced with not being able to market their products as biostimulants, even while being allowed to do so in some overseas markets.

“There's no real reason to be opposed to this,” he said. “If this legislation went through, all it's going to do is bring clarity, where there is confusion right now.”

Groups on the letter include the Agricultural Retailers Association, American Seed Trade Association, Biological Products Industry Alliance, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Council of Producers and Distributors of Agrotechnology, CropLife America, The Fertilizer Institute Biostimulant Council, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, Humic Products Trade Association, International Fresh Produce Association, National Association of Landscape Professionals, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, and Western Growers.

The congressional sponsors also listed the American Bird Conservancy as a supporter.

At four pages, the bill is brief and to the point: It would define plant biostimulants and explicitly exempt them from regulation under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.

Draft guidance issued by EPA in 2020 — but never finalized — attempted to outline when biostimulants would be exempt from FIFRA and when they would be considered “plant growth regulators” and require registration.

In the guidance, EPA said it had decided not to develop a definition of “plant biostimulant,” noting that USDA had submitted two alternatives in a report to Congress on the status of plant biostimulant regulation that was required by the 2018 farm bill.

One definition would consider a “naturally occurring substance, its synthetically derived equivalent, or a microbe” as a PBS, but the second, which removes any reference to synthetic production, is used as the basis for the legislative definition.

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The bill says “the term ‘plant biostimulant’ means a substance, microorganism, or mixture thereof, that, when applied to seeds, plants, the rhizosphere, soil, or other growth media, act to support a plant’s natural processes independently of the biostimulant’s nutrient content, thereby improving nutrient availability, uptake or use efficiency, tolerance to abiotic stress, and consequent growth, development, quality, or yield.”

The bill also would require USDA to conduct research on how biostimulants can enhance soil health, and amend the definition for a vitamin hormone product.

USDA’s report noted that at the state level, “plant biostimulants do not have a regulatory definition and are not a recognized independent class of products.” In addition, “product labeling requirements reflect the variable regulatory environment, and lead to the need for an average of three to five labels per product for soil/plant amendments.”

States often have different laws on what can be claimed on a label and on how materials are measured or quantified, the report said.

An environmental group that is a frequent opponent of EPA in court expressed skepticism about the legislation. Although the Center for Biological Diversity has not been tracking the bill, Environmental Health Director Lori Ann Burd said CBD opposes efforts to exempt from regulation products “that could be used on hundreds of millions of acres in any number of ecosystems. The term 'biostimulant' encompasses an incredibly broad suite of potential products” with varying impacts.

“The point is, we can’t know their impacts if we exempt them from the processes that allow this to be determined,” she said. “If they are indeed safe, then registrants will have no difficulty moving them through the registration process and proving it. And if they are not, then the registration process will help filter the products that should not be used and prevent harm.”

Jones, however, said biostimulant manufacturers are not opposed to regulation when necessary, as when products have pesticidal properties.

“If a product is a pesticide, it has to go under FIFRA and it has to be regulated,” he said. “I agree, it is a broad category, and it ranges from everything from microbials to seaweed extract, but they're all very safe products. They're all natural or natural-based products, with really no human health or environmental impact. And they're definitely not pesticides. If it's even a biopesticide, we agree it has to go under FIFRA.”

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