Murray Gibson, dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence, opened the 15th annual Humic Sci­ence and Tech­nology Con­fer­ence — held last week at North­eastern — by admit­ting that he, like many people, didn’t know what humic sub­stances (HS) were for most of his life.

According to the Inter­na­tional Humic Sub­stances Society (IHSS), HS “are com­plex and het­ero­ge­neous mix­tures” of mate­rials that form in the biodegra­da­tion of organic matter. HS are the long-​​lived organic com­po­nents in soil and nat­ural bodies of water; as such, they are required to main­tain fer­tile farmland.

At the con­fer­ence – co-​​chaired by pro­fessor Geof­frey Davies and prin­cipal research sci­en­tist Elham Ghab­bour of Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Chem­istry and Chem­ical Biology – Gibson pointed to a sta­tistic from the Food and Agri­cul­tural Orga­ni­za­tion of the United Nations that 25 per­cent of the world’s arable land is severely degraded due to unsus­tain­able farming prac­tices. Com­mer­cial HS are addi­tives that can assist in cru­cial soil-​​remediation programs.

Unfor­tu­nately, there have been instances of appli­ca­tion of fake humic acids from a few over­seas com­pa­nies which has decreased the fer­tility of farms,” said Diane McK­night of the Uni­ver­sity of Col­orado and a member of the National Academy of Engi­neering. “These farmers are inad­ver­tently impairing the pro­duc­tivity of their land.”

For this reason, the con­fer­ence atten­dees — who came from industry and acad­emia alike — spent much of their three days in Raytheon Amphithe­ater engaged in a heated debate about the def­i­n­i­tion of HS. Ghab­bour said that a panel dis­cus­sion led by Steve Azzarello, pres­i­dent of the newly formed Humic Prod­ucts Trade Asso­ci­a­tion, was intended to reach con­sensus on a stan­dard HS ana­lyt­ical method.

In a lec­ture just before the panel dis­cus­sion, Davies pre­sented a new method for ana­lyzing the HS con­tents of soils and com­mer­cial HS prod­ucts. Davies, Ghab­bour and a team of under­grad­uate researchers have extracted and char­ac­ter­ized HS from more than 800 soil sam­ples from around the country.

Ghab­bour and Davies’ straight­for­ward method, which has just been described in Northeastern’s online journal Annals of Envi­ron­mental Sci­ence, will help the humics industry to mea­sure HS in its prod­ucts and in soil samples.

These methods are poten­tial stan­dards,” Davies said. “I was always taught that the most accu­rate mea­sure­ment you can make in the lab is gravi­metric — weigh something.”

The conference’s Hon­orary Chair Teodoro Miano, of Uni­ver­sità di Bari in Bari, Italy, and Pres­i­dent of IHSS, said, “This is a world problem. There are so many dif­fer­ences in reg­u­la­tions and needs from dif­ferent mar­kets and coun­tries. So we need to face the problem at the global level.”

Azzarello said the industry wants to move ahead with a prag­matic approach. “We’ve devel­oped a code of ethics, which, if you join our group, you have to follow. We have a list of adul­ter­ants that we do not allow folks who are in our group to use.”

While nothing was set­tled by the end of the day, there was a clear pas­sion among the group to even­tu­ally define HS in a way that allows for straight­for­ward, repro­ducible val­i­da­tion. This effort will be essen­tial in the global mis­sion to min­i­mize fake mate­rial that can fur­ther destroy valu­able farmland.