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Be cautious with new products

University of Saskatchewan soil fertility specialist Jeff Schoenau wishes he could give an informed, scientific response to questions about specific new products. He can’t. Often, very little independent third-party research is available for a new commercial product.

“What you are looking at is, in some cases, sorting agronomic fact from fiction,” says Schoenau. “There are a lot of products out there with various claims being made. A grower wants to be asking the right questions and really trying to see evidence as to what might be expected as far as performance from these products.”

As a senior soil scientist at a leading agricultural school, Schoenau fields questions every month of the year about the quality, effectiveness and worth of soil-related products. Questions come from farmers directly and from former students who are licensed agronomists.

“A lot of the time, agronomists have a question that has arisen as a result of a farmer being presented with a new product or process, and they turn to an agronomist. Agronomists may also receive promotional material directly, and they may in turn ask questions about the material or process,” he says.

Schoenau is often asked if he is aware of any research on a product that is new to the farmer or agronomist, or new on the supply-store shelf. “Not a lot of scientists are involved in product testing and comparison,” he says. “That’s because it can be difficult to publish the results. Sometimes it’s not very intellectually rewarding. Always, there’s a question about the permanency of the findings.

“For example, there may be a change in formulation or design that renders the research time and money obsolete. And, just the sheer numbers of products makes it nearly impossible to address everything out there. It’s really hard to document, but there are always new products coming out.”

One issue that makes it challenging, he adds, is that products come and go. Good science takes time and continuity. A product may be offered for a short while – such as one to three growing seasons – and then disappear, to be replaced with a new package, a variation in the formulation and perhaps a new name or new manufacturer’s name.

Evidence required

Label claims should be supported by solid, science-based evidence – but that isn’t always the case. “I think we are moving to a scenario where there is going to be less information as to efficacy of these products,” says Schoenau. “I think we are moving farther into a buyer-beware world. In some cases, there are less stringent regulatory requirements coming down the road in terms of these products having to prove their efficacy.”

Check the facts, first

From his own experience, Schoenau can offer some tips on how to separate fact from fiction. He even challenges thesis students to get involved in fact-checking labels. Primarily, he says, look for evidence that confirms the claim on the label.

Many years of testing in many conditions are behind the claims for familiar crop varieties and major fertilizers.

Schoenau asks: Does the claim fall in line with general scientific principles and laws of nature? Is the claim within the realm of what is proven and known to science today? If not, be skeptical. If the claim sounds plausible, investigate.
Has the product been tested on a research farm, anywhere? If yes, can you contact that farm or research group? The strongest reason to trust is proof that the research was strong enough to be published in a professional journal. If the research is “underway” but not ready to publish, be careful.

If the retailer or seller says the product claim is based on information published in a professional journal or book – and if you’re seriously interested – ask for the name of the journal, the title of the research paper, author and contact information. If published research does support the claim, ask where the research occurred and when it occurred. If it was outside your own region, or done many years ago, the relevance to the growers own conditions may be limited.


Ask for any certification of the product. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) under the authority of the Fertilizers Act, registers fertilizers, pesticides, micronutrients, supplements, inoculants, composts and other products.

Schoenau’s expertise is in fertility and fertilizers. When a new product makes claims for efficacy and user performance, it may be so new that very little information exists.

“If there isn’t much information out there, you certainly have more risk. Having a large database is inherently difficult for technologies that are just starting up. They may well be legitimate, but early joiners do face more risk. Do you have the means to absorb the risk?” he asks.

Test it

Determine if the evidence applies to your own farm, and make your investment on that basis. “Products can be quite variable in performance. They may work in one area under a given set of circumstances, and may not work so well somewhere else,” says Schoenau.

Ask for a demonstration. Try the product in a small area, or on a small scale, to determine if there is any benefit.

Farm-based trials are much easier today with GPS and yield monitors on most combines. Even then, be careful.

A strip in a field that performs differently is evidence, but not proof, of efficacy. Good field science requires many replicated trials, often over several years, before the evidence is accepted as proof of performance. It’s unfortunate, notes Schoenau, that many growers are reluctant to leave a check strip or an untreated control strip.

“I say, doing and seeing is believing. Be open-minded and willing to learn, but have a basis for doing it.”


February 28, 2013  By John Dietz

Many years of testing in many conditions are behind the claims for familiar crop varieties and major fertilizers. Very little independent third-party research is available for new commercial products.


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