Most people understand the importance of mineral nutrients for plant health. Essential nutrients, like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are integral to a plant's growth and survival. Macronutrients like these and others are regulated using fertilizer and soil care and are a major component of plant husbandry. Over the past few decades, however, scientists have found that there are other minerals that work "behind the scenes." They're called micronutrients, and they're just as important as their more popular counterparts.
HISTORY OF MICRONUTRIENT SCIENCE
Micronutrients, like macronutrients, are essential for plant health, although they're only present in very small amounts. Scientists have known about these minerals for nearly 200 years but did not know the full extent of their benefits. Though research began in the late 1820's, very little development took place until the 1940s. Micronutrient science became more popular after WWII, when scientists began isolating vitamins tied to diseases like scurvy and rickets, and testing soil for those particular vitamins. Scientists found a correlation between micronutrient deficiencies in the soil and people. Over the next several decades, micronutrient production became increasingly more popular. By the 1990s, micronutrient science gained significant traction, as more studies identified the relationship between micronutrients in plants and people and the importance to both.
THE 7 MICRONUTRIENTS PLANTS CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT
Despite only being present in small amounts, micronutrients have very powerful effects on plant health. The main micronutrients are as follows:
- Boron - Helps sugar and carbohydrate production; critical for seed development.
- Copper - Essential for reproduction and absorption of proteins; improves flavor.
- Chloride - Helps in plant metabolism; can enhance plant maturity.
- Iron - Necessary to create chlorophyll; carries oxygen.
- Manganese - Part of the enzyme system which breaks down carbohydrates.
- Molybdenum - Aids in the ability to use nitrogen; necessary to convert inorganic phosphates.
- Zinc - Essential for core plant processes, like chlorophyll, carbohydrate, and seed formation.
These seven nutrients, along with macronutrients, work together to aid in plant function and growth. Plants showing deficiencies in any one of these nutrients will have slowed growth and other problems. For example, a plant that's deficient in zinc will suffer from dwarfism and yellowing leaves. A plant lacking in copper will have aging, discolored leaves. Over the past several years, increasing awareness has led to a boost in the micronutrient market. High-yield crops sap the nutrients out of the soil with each season, and micronutrients need to be returned to the soil each time. Furthermore, demands for specific micronutrients (like zinc) are increasing for fortification purposes.
The overall market is expected to grow by about 8% over the next four years, reaching an estimated $7 billion in 2020. Because micronutrient science was slow to catch on, technology and application practices are relatively new. Market growth will be driven by the demand for high-yield crop fortification and the development of low-cost application methods. Currently, soil application and foliar sprays are the most popular methods, though hydroponics and seed treatments may see a boost over the next several years.
ORGANIC CHELATING AGENTS AND MICRONUTRIENT TECHNOLOGY
One of the biggest breakthroughs in micronutrient science is the advent of biodegradable chelates. The chelation process is used to increase nutrient availability and absorption. Synthetic chelating agents, like EDTA, have been widely used since the 1930s. However, studies have found that EDTA has unwanted environmental effects. EDTA is synthetically created to be strong and long-lasting, but the same compounds that make it stronger also make it non-biodegradable. This means that EDTA takes a very long time to degrade, and during that time, it builds up in the environment and disturbs delicate ecosystems. On the other hand, chelated fertilizers are highly beneficial to soil care, and ultimately, plant growth.
Over the past six years, multiple studies have found that IDHA, an organic chelating agent, may provide an effective alternative. IDHA can be applied through soil application, foliar spray, hydroponics, and other methods. Because IDHA is natural, it's non-polluting and non-toxic. Unfortunately, public awareness of IDHA is currently quite low and is expected to take several years to improve. Vendors in the United States and European countries are working to increase the use of biodegradable chelating agents like IDHA. The biggest challenges that the chelated micronutrients industry faces are higher costs and lack of support. Farmers currently favor non-chelated micronutrients because they are affordable and easy to use. However, chelated micronutrients offer a multitude of benefits to productivity and profitability. Though EDTA remains the most popular chelating agents, vendors are working to spread awareness and make organic alternatives more affordable.
GROWING MORE AND GROWING BETTER
The micronutrient market is expected to see slow, yet steady growth over the next several years, and it couldn't come at a better time. Increased environmental awareness and a rapidly growing population have created a conundrum in the farming industry: Crop demands have increased, but organic farming is expensive. Perhaps micronutrients are a part of the answer. Improved crop integrity, better yields, and reduced environmental footprint are just a few of the major benefits of micronutrients. Hopefully, application methods will become more widely-known and more affordable as the technology evolves.