Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

July 25, 2011

Curse you, von Liebig!

Filed under: science — Tags: , , , — paragardener @ 1:02 am

Sometimes artificial substitutes fall short of their natural inspiration. Infants fed formula are a little less vital than infants fed breast milk, despite new supplements being stuck in the formula every few years. Fields injected with chemical fertilizers lose fertility after 30 or 40 years, whereas fields that get manured, fallowed, and otherwise traditionally managed sometimes last for thousands of years. Sodium benzoate is an artificial antioxidant, which actually contributes to cancer. Many people get the general feeling that the more “natural” or unprocessed something is, the better. So why are we living in such a heavily synthetic world?

Many times, the artificial substitute product has money and prestige supporting it. Big names and marketing cash can make a bigger difference than a product’s actual value to living human beings. For instance: in 1867, Justus von Liebig introduced Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies to European markets. Liebig was a massive intellect, known as a great chemistry teacher, and he’d created the formula to help out moms with no milk and babies with no moms. Since he “knew” that humans relied on only four nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate and potassium), he was able to create infant formula practically “chemically identical” with mothers’ milk: wheat and malt flours, cow milk, and potassium bicarbonate. The formula probably actually did what it was supposed to, and improved the odds for babies who couldn’t get human milk.

Soon other manufacturers were in the game, and doctors were being paid to issue statements about the greatness of infant formula. Over time, nutritional scientists added more and more nutrients to the mix, so that every few years the formula became “more complete.” By 1950, over half of American babies were grown on artificial formulas, regardless of need, because it seemed more modern and clean and doctors and scientists were telling moms to do it that way. The result was a lot of unnecessary infections, allergies, asthma, metabolic syndrome and SIDS — due to missing nutrients and antibodies. Curse you, von Liebig!

Another “breakthrough” of von Liebig’s was to identify the fact that plants take from the soil only water, ammonia, phosphate, silica, and alkali (any of potassium, calcium, sodium or magnesium). Not only was his formula about 12 elements short, but it downplays factors such as soil structure and any role humic acids or symbiotic organisms might play. When you believe that anything can be explained in terms of its chemical parts, that’s a viewpoint called “reductionism” and it is questionable because things can be intricate and work together in ways you wouldn’t expect. When you live in the 1800’s and you believe that everything can be explained in terms of its chemistry, that’s called “extraordinary overconfidence.”

By and large, agricultural suppliers have enthusiastically adopted Liebig’s viewpoint that “a rational system of Agriculture cannot be formed without the application of scientific principles, for such a system must be based on an exact acquaintance with the [chemical] means of nutrition of vegetables.” They’ve even stuck to his rationally obsolete fertilizer formula of nitrogen – phosphate – potassium. Due to narrow-minded chemical management, I daily witness absurdities such as neighbors putting out bags of yard waste for the city to haul off, and then paying men in a white truck to spray fertilizer – herbicide combination all over their lawns to replace the minerals they just threw out! Excess phosphate in the fertilizer ends up contaminating our Great Lakes, and these same people wonder why some of the beaches are gross (you’re feeding the algae, people). In our food, we experience chronic mineral deficiencies because we aren’t replacing micronutrients in the soils — cobalt, zinc, selenium… — we just take these things out of the soil and literally flush them away. We imagine that science and industry have replaced the need for the natural recycling of shit. Curse you, von Liebig!

Also, like certain snidely ironical bloggers, von Liebig held opinions about such a great many things that he was bound to be simply bone-headedly wrong about some of them. History mainly forgets dead-end ideas such as “Yeast produces fermentation in consequence of the progressive decomposition which it suffers from the action of air and water.”

If you look at von Liebig’s Wikipedia page (today, anyway), you will find him presented as a one-dimensional hero of chemistry and industry. He did many wonderful things, such as inventing beef bouillon and predicting that “…the production of all organic substances no longer belongs just to the organism. It must be viewed as not only probable but as certain that we shall produce them in our laboratories. Sugar, salicin [aspirin], and morphine will be artificially produced.” In this bland story, von Liebig’s inventions are never problematic and the man is never wrong.

Unfortunately, the organic chemistry von Liebig fostered has not proven to be a panacea. For instance, while synthetic drugs have saved many a life, it appears that a decent diet is still more important than swallowing vitamin pills.

Establishment voices (and I include Wikipedia) seem to be held in the thrall of myths similar to von Liebig’s beliefs:

It is not every one who is called by his situation in life to assist in extending the bounds of science but all mankind have a claim to the blessings and benefits which accrue from its earnest cultivation. The foundation of scientific institutions is an acknowledgment of these benefits and this acknowledgment proceeding from whole nations may be considered as the triumph of mind over empiricism.

Innumerable are the aids afforded to the means of life to manufactures and to commerce by the truths which assiduous and active inquirers have discovered and rendered capable of practical application. But it is not the mere practical utility of these truths which is of importance. Their influence upon mental culture is most beneficial…

This naive view was excusable when von Liebig held it in 1847. It’s now time to recognize that science takes wrong turns and is warped by egos, nationalism and marketing hype, and it’s not pure blessing and benefit. I suggest that faith in the institutions of science be supplemented with shrewd judgment, a passing knowledge of traditional ways of life, and a personal spirit of exploration.

When I started writing this, I was angry at von Liebig for the things he got away with. He largely set us on a path of unnecessarily replacing nature with laboratory creations. Now I am angry at the people who write up his life as a series of accomplishments, and in so doing whitewash away Justus von Liebig’s humanity.

If you want to get to know the accursed guy, the best way is to read his actual words. I enjoyed flitting around Organic Chemistry and Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, which is written in obsolete chemicalese but which should be decipherable to the patient reader.



  1. I don’t blame science itself so much as I do the people who practice–or mispractice–it. I think the scientific method is pretty rigorous. The problem is that it gets corrupted by all too human motives of profit, fame, etc. In von Liebig’s case, it sounds like he was enamored of the idea that science would free us from the constraints of the natural world–something a lot of scientists thought and still think.

    Comment by estraven — July 25, 2011 @ 5:14 am

  2. von Liebig sounds like Francis Bacon all over again, with the hatred (or at the very least belittling) of nature, and the belief in human superiority. From this perspective, whatever nature does is simplistic and easily quantified, and all the complex and amazing stuff happens in human laboratories. Thus, of course the Chemlawn is better, and the infant formula is best, because those have the maximum human interference, which MUST be a good thing, right? Because nature is primitive and savage and Man is God.

    Where respect for nature seems to be re-emerging in the scientific world, like with some environmental science, midwifery as opposed to obstetrics, nutritional supplements instead of drugs, or medical marijuana, that’s mostly being pushed by consumers and activists from outside scientific circles. There are always a few scientists who become activists, just as there are always some doctors who turn to alternative medicine, but the social force to get things changed comes from the non-scientist public. There is presumably something in the scientific training process and/or the self-selection of science majors which involves that Francis Bacon philosophy: nature is bad and dangerous, man is good and victorious.

    Comment by freelearner — July 30, 2011 @ 1:33 am

    • I take your point, freelearner. The Francis Bacon philosophy doesn’t HAVE to underlie science, but in thinking it over, I’d have to agree with you (and Ethan) that it does. There was all that thought about “progress” being inevitable and how science was the thing to get us there. I’m not sure that scientific training involves the idea that nature is bad, necessarily, but that nature is malleable and can be shaped to human preferences. So it’s al least inferior to the human mind. Nature is dangerous because it’s uncontrollable, and every effort is made to control it, futile though that may be. For all the talk of discovering the immutable laws of the universe etc. there sure seems to be an ongoing attempt to get around those laws!

      Comment by estraven — July 30, 2011 @ 9:20 am

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