Organic vs. Chemical

In this post I want to get back to the 19th century root of the debate. Originally it was a dispute over the nature of fermentation conducted in public between Justus Liebig of Germany and Louis Pasteur of France. I’ll quote from a contemporary text to keep my opinions out of it. [Go Pasteur!]

The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions 7(354): 827-828 (Apr 7, 1877)
ON FERMENTATION. By P. SCHÜTZENBERGER (Director at the Chemical Laboratory at the Sorbonne). H. S. King and Co. London: 1876.

Regarding fermentation as a particular instance of a biological reaction, manifesting itself as the result of the special force residing in organisms, Schützenberger adopts as nearly as possible the well known theory of Pasteur, and gives to that of Liebig little attention beyond enunciating its main features.

After briefly describing some historical observations in regard to fermentation, the author proceeds to consider more especially alcoholic or spirituous fermentation, and concludes that this is brought about through “a special mechanical action, exercised on the ultimate particles of the compound matter” (sugar), the result of which is that the sugar is split up into alcohol and carbonic dioxide, while glycerine and succinic acid are formed also at the expense of the sugar; besides this the sugar gives up matter to form new ferment. The lactic acid which generally accompanies alcoholic fermentation is considered as proved to be due to the presence of a minute amount of a foreign ferment.

Now Pasteur regards fermentation as essentially “a correlative phenomenon of a vital act, beginning and ending with it,” so that wherever there is fermentation, there is organization, development, and multiplication of globules of the ferment [yeast] itself. Liebig on the other hand neglected the element of life and regarded fermentation as due to a disturbance of equilibrium imparted to the elements of bodies by virtue of an existing change or motion in other bodies. Pasteur and Liebig have at no time in the history of the discussion between them relative to this matter agreed, and the last paper written by the illustrious Liebig was a refutation of some of the later inferences drawn by Pasteur on this subject.

It is obvious to us in the 21st century that Pasteur was right about fermentation. Further research by Pasteur and others of the Pasteur Institute (especially Winogradsky) demonstrated that various micro-organisms are important in building and maintaining soil fertility. So why have organic methods been dismissed as “fringe” theories and “fads”?


American Agriculturist 4: 226 (1845)
New Manure.—It is said that Professor Liebig has discovered a mineral substance, which, when combined with guano, will produce one of the most fertilizing manures known. A joint-stock company, with a capital of £120.000 sterling, composed for the most part of leading English capitalists, has been formed for the purpose of carrying on upon a large scale the manufacture of the new compound. Among the subscribers are several eminent professors of agriculture, who, according to the Impartial du Rhin, give out that the application of this substance to the culture of lands will produce an entire revolution in the agricultural system.

Updated: March 12, 2021
£100 in 1845 is equivalent in purchasing power to £12,239.18 today

120000 (1845) = 1200 x 12,239.18 = 14,687,016 (Mar 2021) = $20,268,082.08
Farmers could “grow their own” nitrogen and phosphates, but the big corporations would not profit.

This is really interesting Karl K, thanks for sharing!
Indeed, there’s a lot of money in that business… and a lot of wasted ressources.
Even the organic fertilizer industry makes no sense.
Here in Malta, people complain about the “slime” residue produced by aquaculture. This stuff just gets dumped out at sea . Meanwhile local plant shops sell organic fish fertilizer derived from aquaculture waste, which is imported from… New Zealand!
And of course we have plentiful guano from the myriads of seagulls and pigeons. But no, let’s import bat guano products in trendy packaging and use that instead.
It’s absurd. We have everything we need right there but we throw it away to import the same thing from the other end of the world.

Many years ago, my grandfather told me that organic gardening/farming is not new, because his grandfather spread manure over his fields. I was too caught up in the moment (connecting over time to my great, great grandfather for a moment) to disagree. And I didn’t understand the subject well enough to argue. But manure on a field is wasteful for the very reason Liebig approved: the nutrients are soluble.
The same nutrients get bound up as insoluble compounds when the manure is composted. They are still available to plants because mycorrhizal fungi collect these nutrients and deliver them to the roots of our plants. Liebig could not grasp such cooperation among living things.
And I agree about the silliness of packaging “organic” fertilizers. Why in the world would I buy a bag of sterilized manure? It’s the microbes I need in the soil.