Humic products in agriculture: potential benefits and research challenges—a review

Abstract

Humic products have been used in cropland agriculture for several decades, but lack of widespread credibility has restricted their use to small proportions of farmers. To improve the credibility of humic products, we identify four knowledge gaps and propose pathways of future action to close these gaps. First, while the capacity of humic products to improve plant growth has been proven in greenhouse and growth chambers, more such work is needed in field conditions, especially to determine the modifying effects on humic product efficacy of environmental and management factors, including crop type, annual weather patterns, soil type, and fertility management. Many of the published field studies fail to address any of these factors. Second, full acceptance of humic products by the research community may first require a mechanistic explanation for plant responses to humic products. Some research groups are exploring plant-based mechanisms, but almost entirely in controlled conditions, not in field conditions. Industry often attributes yield responses to enhancement of soil nutrient availability without citing adequate evidence. Microbial-based explanations are also possible. Third, consumer trust in available humic products would be strengthened through industry-wide measures for quality control of humic product production and sale, including standard procedures for measuring their humic and fulvic acid contents and rapid bio-assays for distinguishing effective products from inert frauds. Finally, humic products are widely presumed to promote root growth, which offers the potential to increase soil C inputs and thereby improve soil health. Yet virtually, no such evidence has been presented, in part due to the absence of long-term field trials. Humic product companies in North America have organized a trade association to promote a more knowledge-based industry. To acquire a database that will support these objectives, we propose establishment of a global network of field sites that would measure crop responses to humic products across ranges of humic products, crop types, soil types, and climates. Plant and soil samples would be analyzed by cooperating specialists in advanced laboratories to identify mechanistic processes and benefits to both plant production and soil health. We believe the industry will indeed become more knowledge-based and the credibility of humic products will improve as (i) we learn more about their field efficacy across ranges of field conditions for improving crop yield and soil health, (ii) we gain further insights into possible mechanistic explanations, and (iii) the consumer gains the ability to discern genuine products from fraudulent materials.

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Correspondence to Daniel C. Olk.

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DC Olk and DL Dinnes received research grants from Minerals Technologies, Inc. (JR Scoresby and JW Darlington) and separately from Ag Logic Distributors (CR Callaway), but results from those projects are not presented here.

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Olk, D.C., Dinnes, D.L., Rene Scoresby, J. et al. Humic products in agriculture: potential benefits and research challenges—a review. J Soils Sediments 18, 2881–2891 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11368-018-1916-4

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Keywords

  • Crop yield
  • Environmental stresses
  • Humic products
  • Standard methods