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Market potential and challenges in soil amendment sector — How TRADECORP respondqrcode

Jan. 17, 2020

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Jan. 17, 2020
The optimum management of the world’s soils is an increasingly important issue. The FAO estimates that 38% of global cropland soil is degraded and this can lead to problems with soil water infiltration, reduced nutrient availability, sodification, salinization, and adverse soil pH resulting in the loss of soil structure and soil organic matter. Regardless of the type of soil degradation, the final result is the same: an increased risk of reduced yield and reduced quality, and more unpredictable annual yields. When these risks are put in the context of an expanding global population, the importance of soil management is easy to comprehend.

Degradation of soil in China follows global trends, with about 40% of arable land in China suffering from some form of degradation, according to a report in Xinhua. The causes of soil degradation in China also follow global trends, for example thinning of soils in the North East, salinization and acidification of soil in all of Eastern China, and the increasing sodicity of soils in Western China agricultural zones. Across China there is a general trend of loss of soil organic matter and reduction of soil structure similar to what is happening globally.

To manage soil degradation, all these causes of degradation must be taken into account, however as lost soil organic matter and soil structure are the two most visible consequences of soil degradation, these should be the focus of soil amendment efforts.

The first step in managing these two factors is to prevent any further degradation of soil organic matter and soil structure. The second is to work toward reversing the causes of soil degradation.

The most obvious way to help reduce the loss of soil organic matter is through the application of composts and plant residues to the soil, and this should always be encouraged. Composts are a source of fibre and nutrients for healthy soil microbiota and plant growth, and contain dilute forms of Humic Acids, beneficial for soil structure. Certain quality control factors are important in the manufacture of compost, such as ample heat during the composting process to kill any pathogens, reducing the number of viable weed seeds, and ensuring low sodium and chloride levels in the final compost.

However, the addition of composts alone is not always an economic solution.  For example, composts are a bulky material and costly to transport over large distances. As a result most of the compost produced globally is consumed locally, near the site of production.

Humic Acids, however, can be obtained from different sources, concentrated, and thus allowing Humic Acids to be transported economically through the agricultural supply chain, to areas where they are needed. The manufacture of high-quality, Humic Acid products is a key area of focus for TRADECORP. In fact, one of the very first products produced by TRADECORP in 1985 was a Humic Acid (Humistar / Humifirst) derived from American Leonardite. While the use of Humic Acids is now considered common in agriculture, in 1985 it was a novel concept, making TRADECORP a pioneer company in the development and promotion of Humic Acids in European agriculture.

Why are Humic Acids Important?

When soil organic matter is lost from soil, Humic Acids are also lost. Soil organic matter and Humic Acids together play a fundamental role in maintaining a good soil structure. When soil organic matter and Humic Acid levels are reduced or lost from soil, the soil loses the “glue” or “web” that holds and binds soil together, resulting in a weakened or collapsed soil structure.

It is easy to see in this simplified illustration how soil organic matter and Humic Acids help to hold the soil together, resulting in a soil structure that:
  - facilitates water infiltration during rain and irrigation;
  - provides a reservoir of nutrients and fibre for plant and healthy microbial growth
  - reduces soil erosion;
  - increases water storage capacity helping promote crop growth during summer;
  - allows for pore spaces between soil particles for roots to grow and absorb nutrients.

What does ‘Humic Acid’ refer to?

Humic Acid market is one of the most confusing and least understood aspects of the global agricultural input market. The exact origin of Humic Acids in soil is still not fully understood by scientists, Humic Acids are somehow derived from decaying plant residues although the exact pathway is not understood. This lack of fundamental understanding of the exact source origin of Humic Acids is further compounded by the use of inconsistent language related to Humic Acids by both manufacturers and governments around the world. Globally, almost all government testing and registration protocols focus on quantitative Humic Acids tests to determine “how much” Humic Acids are in the bottle, rather than utilising qualitative tests that measure and focus on “the quality” of the Humic Acids in the bottle”.

As a consequence, it is natural for both retailers and growers to be confused. In TRADECORP’s view the confusion and lack of consistent and accurate tests to measure the quality of Humic Acids is the biggest challenge for the global Soil Amendment sector. TRADECORP’s response is twofold; first, to continue to produce and further enhance the efficacy of our high quality Humic Acids range, and second, to educate the market about Humic and Fulvic Acids in general.

In simple terms “general” Humic Acids can be described as all of the various organic acids derived from humus. Humus is the organic portion of soil and is formed from the decomposed remains of plants, animals and soil microbiota. There are more technical definitions that further categorise the Humic Acids into what could be thought of as “true” Humic Acids (typically the larger sized humus derived Acids) and Fulvic Acids (typically smaller sized humus derived acids). The content of the Humic Acids and Fulvic Acids is typically known as Total Humic Extract (THE). For explanatory purposes in the rest of this article TRADECORP will refer to Humic and Fulvic Acids combined as HFA.

An important point to understand is that HFA are both collective groups. The reality is that there are 1000’s of different HFA, each one with a slightly different effect on plants and roots. When a Retailer or Grower buys a HFA product they are not buying a single HFA, they are actually a buying a combination of tens or hundreds of HFA types.

What are the main origins of HFA?

HFA can be derived from a variety of sources as per the diagram below.

As the diagram illustrates, there are many different sources and types of HFA. For example, HFA can be derived from coal type materials (e.g. American Leonardite) that are millions of years old, or from industrial sources that are only days or weeks old.

It is clear that an HFA extracted from substances that are millions of years old is significantly aged and very likely to be very different from a “new” HFA product that is only a few days old from an industrial source such as HFA from paper pulp. Yet most government registration tests classify all types and sources of HFA as the same, although this is clearly not the case. Each of different source of HFA have different strengths and weaknesses. While TRADECORP fully supports and complies with government regulations and registration processes, the global standardisation of clear definitions of terms used in HFA registration tests, and more robust analysis techniques, are necessary to protect growers from poor quality products. For example, TRADECORP’s analysis of the global HFA market has found that only 12% of products on the global market would be considered high quality, by TRADECORP’s standards – this is only 1 brand in every 8!

What are ‘High Quality’ HFAs?

As mentioned previously, one of the principal difficulties with the HFA market is the lack of tests that measure the quality of HFA (i.e. qualitative tests). One effective qualitative test is pyrolysis gas chromatography (py-gcms). This is an analysis method that allows all the different types, and sizes, of HFA in a product to be analysed, quantified and visualised. In fact, the analysis is so accurate that it can be described as a fingerprint, allowing each product to be more or less identified by the manufacturer – identification is possible even without product labels or other identifying features. This is because each raw material that the HFA is extracted from, combined with the different extraction process used by each manufacturer, results in a product with different combinations and ratios of HFA.

In the real world this means that two companies can take the same raw material, for example American Leonardite, and using differing HFA extraction processes, each will have different HFA profiles in in the final extract.

Other factors will also impact the quality of the final product for example, but the raw material is particularly crucial. TRADECORP uses American Leonardite, the original source of HFA used in agriculture and agricultural research, which remains the most widely studied and understood source of all HFA sources.

Further, TRADECORPS analysis of other products in the HFA market reveals that almost 1 in 3 of all products being sold to growers contain fine particles that could potentially block irrigation equipment. In other cases, some products do not contain any refined soluble HFA at all, and instead contain micronised coal dust with HFA that will not become available to soils and plants for decades.

In short, a high quality HFA soil amendment product would be derived from well-researched and established, natural sources of HFA, and would incorporate refined, highly soluble HFAs to ensure the rapid maintenance of improvement of soil quality, and the promotion of plant growth with the objective of maximising farmers Yield & Quality and thus profitability.

A simpler way to assess the quality of HFA.

A much simpler way to test the efficacy of a product is to look for the results of HFA on plant, and particularly root, growth. The larger HFAs are most effective at improving root biomass and have a secondary effect of strengthening soil structure. These HFAs are typically most effective when applied to soil. The smaller HFA are typically more effective when applied as foliar sprays, where they have a better absorption potential due to their smaller size and more often influence the foliar growth of plants.

A high quality HFA product, with a high proportion of the larger Humic Acids should result in more root growth approximately 15 days after application. This is a very easy and effective way for the retailer or grower to understand if their HFA product is beneficial and profitable for their program. All crop types will respond to high quality HFA applied to soil to promote root growth, however, the quantity of root produced will vary depending on the type or brand of HFA used and crop type. An important point is that this extra root growth should be achieved by the natural Biostimulant properties of the HFA alone without the supplementation of the product with synthetic hormones. High quality HFA products do not usually naturally contain plant hormones. High Quality HFA are classified as true plant Biostimulants – they have more effect on plant growth than could be explained by the fertiliser component in the bottle.


By using high quality HFA the grower can help to lessen some of the negative impacts of degraded soils through larger and more exploratory root structures that can better absorb nutrients and water, while resisting factors such as adverse pH and moderate salinity / sodicity. The subsequent improvement in soil structure can also further promote water infiltration and better root growth. As such HFA are essential tools for the grower to utilise and are true Soil Amendment products.

Market potential in the Soil Amendment sector in China and Globally

Given the high rates of degradation of global agricultural soils and noted benefits of HFA products for crops, in both healthy or degraded soils, the promotion of HFAs in the Soil Amendment sector is of fundamental importance, both within China, and on a global scale.

Companies like TRADECORP often have more than one of HFA product in their portfolio to ensure growers have access to the most appropriate and profitable solution for their unique situation. For example Humistar / Humifirst is a purified HFA product from TRADECORP. Humistar is also used to make various derived products such as Humistar Active, a product registered for use in China that has been optimised to enhance root growth while incorporating Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) to promote early growth. Other products include Turbo Root and Turbo Root WG which are complete soil amendments and Biostimulant solutions that combine TRADECORP HFAs with a complete suite of NPK, EDTA Micronutrients and Amino Acids to ensure a vigorous crop in all circumstances. Further enhanced TRADECORP products that may be used as Soil Amendments include Powered By Humifirst (PBH), a special combination HFA coating for application onto the surface of conventional fertiliser granules during blending, that was developed in conjunction with Gembloux Research Center CRA Gx and Ghent University in Belgium. When compared to competitors, PBH has the advantage of minimal losses of the Humic Coating during storage and application. The most recent additions to the TRADECORP portfolio include the Vegecore range which is manufactured from high-quality HFA derived from the sugar-beet industry bringing new types of HFA to the TRADECORP portfolio and also having the advantage of a better mixability profile in tankmix with herbicides and fungicides.

Globally, and in China, it is becoming increasingly common to supplement composts through the addition of value adding products, for example EDTA micronutrient mixes such as TRADECORP’s AZ range, and to fortify the composts with concentrated purified HFA such as TRADECORP’s Humistar / Humifirst Range. HFAs are complimentary to composts and while both composts and HFAs are individually fantastic products, when combined their value surpasses the sum of the individual components.

In addition to HFA products that primarily address the soil degradation issues of low organic matter and weak soil structure, TRADECORP’s global Soil Amendment portfolio contains products that effectively tackle other common causes of soil degeneration, such as Saltrad, a special soil corrector that helps to reduce and reverse the effect of soil sodicity.

Of course plants growing in degraded soils are more likely to suffer from Abiotic Stress and in these circumstances, a strong foliar Biostimulant program, for example using TRADECORP products from the Phylgreen, Delfan, Trafos, Phostrade and Kamin ranges, is essential for a holistic approach. All of these international ranges are already registered and available in China, or are currently undergoing registration for the future benefit of Chinese growers.

Source: AgroNews

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