An unfortunate legacy of Justus von Liebig

Every good idea that takes off in human thinking seems to have its downside that eventually requires correction, as it is taken to extremes. I think this is what Hegel’s dialectic of thesis –> antithesis –> synthesis was about. The German chemist Justus von Liebig provides an example very relevant today, in a story told by Beata Bishop in the recent SciMed newsletter.

Von Liebig (1802-1873) is variously regarded as the founder of organic chemistry and the father of the fertilizer industry. He notably discovered that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are key minerals that plants need to grow and thrive. Thus came about the modern fertilizer industry, which gradually supplanted traditional farming techniques based on manure, compost, crop rotation, leaving fields fallow, etc.

Of course, initially this approach appeared successful and crops thrived. With the development of modern pesticides the industrial approach to agriculture seemed sensible and was commercially successful. But what has only become apparent after many decades is that this approach is over-simple and other vital minerals and organic matter are being gradually lost from the now-depleted soils. The organic movement arose to try to counteract this, but still only has a foothold where people can afford it. And the agrochemical industry has become so powerful that it is difficult to change towards the organic antithesis, or indeed any new synthesis.

Of course the pendulum will swing back, they always do. Unfortunately, this is also a critical time of climate change, caused by the related explosion of fossil fuel exploitation over the same period.

Historically, civilisations come to an end when changes of climate and crop yields eventually make them unsupportable. We really now are in a critical period of human history, partly thanks to the worthy efforts of Justus von Liebig. But never say die, necessity is the mother of invention, and humanity is a very inventive and adaptable species.



One of the UK’s spectacular natural sights is the autumn murmuration (gathering) of huge flocks of starlings preparing to roost as night begins to fall.

murmuration 1We received a treat at the end of October when we encountered one at WWT Martin Mere, while we were actually waiting to see the pink footed geese coming in at dusk. This was at a relatively early stage. More and more groups of starlings joined in, and the gathering went on for more than half an hour.Read More »

The Perfect Lawn?

A neighbour’s front lawn is always perfectly manicured, like a bowling green, no weeds. What a shock the other day to see it with a large brown patch in the middle. What had happened?

It turns out he paid good money to get a local company to come and remove the moss. Obviously they used chemicals, something went wrong, and the brown patch was the result.

This reminded me of my late father’s lawns, bless him. He was always feeding and putting on weedkillers promoted to improve the lawn. Often bits got brown, so yet more treatment ensued.

Now, our front and back lawns are green. This is not to boast – if you examine them closely you will find moss, daisies and other plantains along with a fair amount of grass. But at least they look green, and the daisies add interest in my view. Apart from mowing, they get little attention – hopefully an annual scarify to get rid of some moss, a poke with a fork if they’re lucky, removal of the odd dandelion or buttercup that might take over, the odd sprinkle of grass seed on the resulting bare bit, and occasionally leaving the cuttings on to soak in some nutrients. Of course, we live in the north west of England, so watering is not generally needed. As a management method, it seems to work.

Indeed, the method even works for establishing a new lawn. At our first house in Crewe, we simply levelled an area of the back garden and started mowing it from time to time. Eventually it turned into a perfectly acceptable green lawn.

All this leaves me to ponder: what is the point of all those preparations sold in the gardening shops to improve lawns by feeding and killing weeds? Is it just part of our mindset that we have to control nature, rather than largely just letting it get on with things for itself?

And what happens to the herbicides – presumably they just stay in the soil or leach into natural water systems…

The only thing worse is the current peculiar infatuation with artificial grass, which is taking alientation from nature to rather extreme levels…

Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons