A meta-analysis and review of plant-growth response to humic substances: Practical implications for agriculture

Michael T. Rose, Antonio F. Patti, Karen R. Little, Alicia L. Brown, W. Roy Jackson, Timothy R. Cavagnaro

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

293 Citations (Scopus)


The breakdown products of plant and animal remains, extracted in an alkaline solution, are commonly referred to as humic substances (HS). They can be extracted from a wide variety of sources, including subbituminous coals, lignites (brown coals), peat, soil, composts, and raw organic wastes. The application of HS to plants has the potential to improve plant growth, but the extent of plant-growth promotion is inconsistent and relatively unpredictable when compared to inorganic fertilizers. The goal of this review was to determine the magnitude and likelihood of plant-growth response to HS and to rank the factors contributing to positive growth promotion. These factors included the source of the HS, the environmental growing conditions, the type of plant being treated, and the manner of HS application. Literature reports of exogenously applied HS-plant interactions were collated and quantitatively analyzed using meta-analytic and regression tree techniques. Overall, random-effects meta-analysis estimated shoot dry weight increases of 22. ±. 4% and root dry weight increases of 21. ±. 6% in response to HS application. Nevertheless, actual responses varied considerably and were mainly influenced by the source of the HS applied, the rate of HS application, and to a lesser extent, plant type and growing conditions. HS from compost sources significantly outperformed lignite and peat-derived HS in terms of growth promotion, while HS application rate nonlinearly moderated the growth response under different circumstances. Our results demonstrate the difficulty in generalizing recommendations for the use of HS in agriculture; however, some specific suggestions for maximizing the efficacy of HS under certain conditions are offered. We also outline some recent developments in the use of HS as synergists for improving fertilizer use efficiency and the activity of microbial inoculants. Finally, we identify a number of research gaps, which, when addressed, should clarify how, when, and where HS can be best applied for the greatest benefit.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAdvances in Agronomy
EditorsDonald L. Sparks
Place of PublicationSan Diego, USA
PublisherAcademic Press Inc.
Number of pages53
ISBN (Print)9780128001387
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameAdvances in Agronomy
ISSN (Print)0065-2113


  • Compost
  • Crop stimulant
  • Humic acid
  • Lignite
  • Organic matter
  • Peat
  • Soil amendment
  • Soil carbon


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