“It’s the Nitrogen, Stupid!”: On Agrochemistry, Biodynamics and Wine

Above, a postcard from the German fertilizer industry of the 1920s. At the time, perspectives on soil were changing:  Until then, people had spoken of plant growth as being affected by forces; afterward, it was substances. Deficiencies could simply be addressed with the help of agrochemistry. 

As recently as a decade ago, biodynamic viticulture could be shrugged off as “some dogma about phases of the moon and cow horns.” But now that we find a who’s who of the wine world on the member lists of relevant biodynamic organizations, it’s no longer so easy to cancel adherents to this form of farming. Those who set the oft-cited cow horn aside and look more closely will recognize that numerous aspects of biodynamics are just as topical today as they were a century ago when the farming form first took shape. 

Food security has always been the objective of agriculture. The challenge in this is keeping the same areas fertile over the long term. Some civilizations have had more success with this than others; failure was a contributing factor to their decline. China appears to have been a positive example of this, as Sir Albert Howard describes in his 1943 book An Agricultural Testament: “…despite 4,000 years of cultivation, soil fertility was not diminished.” This was, mind you, before conventional agriculture took hold there.

Howard (1873 – 1947) is considered a pioneer of organic agriculture. In the early 20th century, he was appointed by the British government to be agricultural adviser to the states of central India and Rajputana. There he observed, among other things, how the local population farmed successfully with natural crop rotations and without fertilizers. 

Many modern methods that were to marginalize experience gathered over millennia have their origins in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many of the modern methods that were to marginalize experience and observation gathered over millennia and knowledge dispersed through emulation and inheritance have their origins in the 19th and, above all, 20th centuries. This was a period shaped by technological progress, two world wars, great political ruptures, and gains in prosperity. At the same time, fungal diseases and phylloxera were accidentally introduced and threatened to collapse European viticulture, causing great economic crisis for growers. Grafting vines onto markedly more vigorous American rootstocks became the norm and with it a focus on maximizing yields and ensuring their health through clonal selection.

There was chemist Justus von Liebig, a charismatic personality who shaped the agricultural sciences and shifted their focus to chemistry. His 1840 publication on agricultural chemistry touts, among other ideas, the mineral theory. According to his theories, the availability of soluble nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and other elements determines plant growth.

By ashing various plants, Liebig construed their nutrient requirements. This led him to the idea of tailoring fertilization to the nutrient uptake of the plant. Like an accountant, the farmer or grower would create a balance sheet and offset the lacking minerals. Added to this was Liebig’s “Law of the Minimum,” whereby he promised an increase in yields simply by increasing quantities of fertilizer. It was a view of fertilizer as a basic tool for generating quantity. 

Like an accountant, the farmer or grower would create a balance sheet and offset the lacking minerals.

This realization coincided with a new appreciation for agricultural research by the state. During the Kaiserreich (1871-1918), the state bolstered this work at German universities. It was, of course, in the government’s interest to ensure food security. The notion of self-sufficiency, too, was already a factor. In times of war, a country needs to feed itself without imports. 

As such, numerous agricultural experimental stations were established. At all of them, agrochemistry and Liebig’s lessons in fertilization played a central role because they promised the greatest increase in yields and this field offered presumed methodological advantages. 

To test fertilizer efficacy, a field had only to be divided like a chessboard, variously fertilized, and the respective yields analyzed. The results were then just a matter of cause and effect. No one was interested in the fact that these observations of small parcels synthetically fertilized over short periods couldn’t readily be generalized. The results were too spectacular. This approach soon superseded other disciplines that dealt with soil fertility, such as soil bacteriology or geology. Moreover, the methodological arsenal of this approach was insufficient to account for such complex matters as humus


On top of that, compared with agrochemistry, results from these other disciplines were less readily commercialized and, as such, did not dispose of nearly as many resources. “Compared to the hundreds of trials on the effect of commercial fertilizers, there is scarcely one experiment with stable manure,” complained soil biologist Felix Löhnis in 1928. As a result, these important areas of research remained underexplored. Farming had become a branch of chemistry.  

Farming had become a branch of chemistry.  

These developments coincided with a fertilizer industry that was just taking shape. Potash (potassium oxide) came from domestic mining; the corresponding industry had its origins in the 1860s. Thomas meal, a phosphorus by-product of steel production, became widespread after 1880. Nitrogen alone was not so easy to come by. Here agriculture was in competition with the arms industry. Nitrogen, in the form of nitric acid, is a raw material for explosives, such as TNT, first synthesized in 1863. Availability increased with the start of imports from Chile of the raw material sodium nitrate, so-called Chilean saltpeter. 

The big breakthrough in the nitrogen issue was celebrated by German researchers Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber. They succeeded in the artificial synthesis of ammonia, and with this, the possibility of obtaining nitrogen industrially.  

Their discovery was patented in 1910 — just in time for World War I. The German War Ministry offered generous credits for the construction of large-scale production facilities. Incidentally, many historians blame this discovery for the extreme brutality and duration of the first world war. Without it, all sides would have run out of munitions faster. 

At the end of the war, enormous quantities of nitrogen were left in need of new customers. During the war, soils had been exhausted by excessive potato cultivation and poor soil maintenance.  Against this background, the fertilizer industry could present itself as a savior:  their products could simply replace the lacking nutrients. 

However, the increased use of nitrogen did not lead to higher yields, but rather to acidification of soils, poor growth conditions, and an increase in plant and animal diseases. What did crop up were the first broad criticisms of agrochemistry and agricultural research methods. 

The “Agricultural Lectures” that led to the establishment of biodynamic farming practices were given by Rudolf Steiner in Koberwitz (then Germany) in 1924 — during this same period. Anthroposophic-minded farmers had urged him to undertake them, in part because they hoped he would offer answers to the growing agricultural problems. It’s important to recognize that the impulse to biodynamic farming didn’t exactly come out of a vacuum, but had a long socio-scientific backstory.  

… the impulse to biodynamic agriculture had a long socio-scientific backstory.   

In his lectures, Steiner advocated for, among other things, a biological understanding of soil fertility. “One must know that fertilization has to take place as part of an enlivening of the earth,” he explained. For him, synthetic nitrogen differed qualitatively from nitrogen in the soil: “One is a dead nitrogen; the other a living nitrogen” — only the latter should, for that reason, be used for plant fertilization.

By extension, he posited the thesis “that all mineral fertilizers … contribute to a degeneration … a deterioration of agricultural products.“ He criticized the then-current testing methodology in the same regard. For Steiner, the farm was a holistic system and, as such, only “holistic trials” could lead to meaningful results. Even then, many contemporaries understood Steiner’s theories as attacks on their worldview and business models. Views on fertilization were then and remain today one of the central points of debate between conventional and biodynamic farmers. 

But in his criticism, Steiner was and is not alone. What Sir Albert Howard noted in his 1943 book is remarkable: “With the spread of synthetic fertilization and the exhaustion of the original humus stores in all soils, there appears a corresponding increase in diseases of the crops planted on them and the animals that feed on those crops. When we see the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe and its relative insignificance among well-nourished animals in the east… there is no getting around the conclusion that there is an inner connection between wrong methods of farming and illness among livestock. When it comes to crops such as potatoes and fruit, the use of toxic sprays is soon followed by a reduction in the supply of stable manure and a decline in fertility.” 

For Steiner, the farm was a holistic system and, as such, only “holistic trials” could lead to meaningful results.

But these concerns were no match for the triumphal march of agrochemistry.  In 1927, German chemical company BASF introduced a compound fertilizer called Nitrophoska to the market. It chemically combined the three main nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This solved the problem of the practitioner, who was often overwhelmed by the complexity of calculating the application of individual nutrients. Nitrophoska made it possible to gain yield increases of up to 70%.

By this point, business practices had long since found their way into farming and profit was measured above all by what could be wrung from the earth, which in turn fueled the use of ever-cheaper synthetic fertilizers. 

The use of stable manure was considered inefficient. Thus the connection between field crop and livestock farming — proven over centuries — was broken. The primacy of an economy that had subordinated everything to it, with a zeitgeist of “It’s the economy, stupid!,” had its agricultural counterpart: “It’s the nitrogen, stupid!”

A zeitgeist of “It’s the economy, stupid!” had its agricultural counterpart:
“It’s the nitrogen, stupid!”

The results that now, decades later, can be seen in full force, are not just loss of humus or depletion of soil life, but also inconceivable nitrogen imbalances as well as social upheaval. That the rainforests of Brazil are now burned for crop feed to be used, among other places, in European factory farms, can also only be explained by these short-sighted fertilization practices. The surpluses for subsidized products are exported while robbing others of their basic means of survival. When Dutch onions are cheaper than those that are homegrown in Cameroon, we don’t need to wonder why locals are fleeing the country.  

Not to mention environmental degradations such as loss of biodiversity, eutrophication of bodies of water, nitrate contamination of groundwater, and so on, the costs of which must be borne by all of us. Those who would strive for a true-cost calculation have to declare bankruptcy for this form of conventional agriculture.  

Agriculture as well as viticulture must be rethought in light of the climate emergency. Even given understandable discomfort with anthroposophy and the controversial figure of Rudolf Steiner, if we take just the theories of soil fertility and fertilization, the ideas about farm individuality and the practices that arise from it, biodynamics is damned modern. 

Biodynamics appears to be closer to the reality of fields and vineyards than that part of agricultural research that paved the way for industrialized farming. This is being proven by, among other things, the results of microbiome research and soil bacteriology — fields that, after decades of chemistry’s hegemony over the agricultural sciences, are again gaining traction. 

Around the world, growers and farmers are searching for ways out of the dead-ends described here. Agricultural and viticultural schools are scarcely answering their questions. Most still preach the synthetic fertilizer mentality and training is oriented to the use of pesticides. Biodynamics is a welcome enrichment — not the total opposite of or alternative to science, but an extension of it.  

Biodynamics is not the total opposite of or alternative to science, but an extension of it.  

“Fertilization is such a deep mystery that only spiritual researchers can fathom it,” Steiner once said. With this, he questioned whether the complex interconnections of nature and the manifold interplay of practitioner and his or her little piece of earth can ever fully be grasped by conventional scientific methods.

In principle, it is this doubt that differentiates biodynamic from organic farming practices. Whether Steiner is right remains to be determined. In any case, it is worth looking with unblinkered eyes at what biodynamics, with nearly a century of history around the globe, has to offer. You don’t have to like everything you see. 

For Steiner, everything was connected to everything else and the role of the human being is to find the right balance in it all. In the Anthropocene era, this is more current than ever. Agriculture must soon find a way to feed 8 billion people without destroying the planet in the process. Viticulture must find its own sustainable place within this context. 

Once one realizes that viticulture only constitutes 0.7% of Germany’s total farm land, but uses 20% of the pesticides employed in agriculture as a whole, it’s clear we’re still far from this. Things look similar in many other countries, too. In the end, it’s also about social acceptance for viticulture. 

The question of how to understand fertilization was long thought to have been answered. “The nitrogen, stupid!“? What a mistake. We are only now beginning to understand the question in the first place.

Translated by Valerie Kathawala


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Romana Echensperger MW

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