Herwig Pommeresche, a German-Norwegian explorer of soil life, graduate permaculture designer and graduate engineer, shares his lifetime of research into humus. Humusphere, translated into English for the first time, digs deep into a myriad of little-known research papers, comparing their findings with the usual conventional methods.
Herwig Pommeresche offers an ecologically oriented understanding as a check to the still prevalent chemical-technical agricultural system.
In the excerpt below, Pommeresche discusses the cycle of living material and its biological and chemical roots.
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From Chapter One: Agrobiology and Agricultural Chemistry: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Whom Does Agriculture Serve?
I would like to pose an intentionally provocative question: Who should determine the future of agriculture and thus our food supply? Should it be the field of chemistry or the field of biology?
Biology needs to concentrate more strongly on the living processes within organisms and look at them as just as important as the fundamentals of chemistry, and agricultural science and biology need to work much more closely. My appeal is: This new biology is obliged to support agriculture in introducing new explanatory models. Furthermore, the difference must be explained to consumers of the products in a comprehensible way.
Some may say that this is impossible, but that is true only of our conventional view of chemistry. By its own definition, chemistry cannot describe life and living systems and its explanatory models cannot cover them. The difference between the two models or methods, however, is significant and verifiable. If the ecological scene is not ready embrace this, I am convinced we will be unable to solve the urgent problems facing us today within agriculture. I believe that it is absolutely necessary to get a new, synergistic biological movement going that is clearly and explicitly based on the fundamental concept of living material. This will allow us to establish a confident “biological” biology as well as a confident biological agriculture. The idea of the cycle of living material has been challenged and “scientifically” rejected many times by proponents of the current model. But in the last thirty or forty years, molecular biology has become so independent that outsiders to it—such as Margulis and the supporters of the Gaia theory—have once again turned to the idea of the theory of living material. Recent research in molecular biology (e.g., Kroymann 2010) has made it possible to develop and provide support for older hypotheses and models of the cycle of living material. There is a good chance, with the help of the endosymbiotic theory and the Gaia theory, of constructing a believable, viable model that finally brings together the “science of tomorrow” (Rusch 1955; Schanderl 1970), thereby making a broader audience aware of our new understanding of agriculture and plant cultivation. An important result would be that the practically senseless application of more and more outside energy and materials in agriculture would come to an end, and their places would be retaken by the care, nourishment, and propagation of the life in the soil.
To accomplish this, the biological aspect of this problem needs to be, if not fully separated, then clearly and comprehensibly delineated from models originating in the field of chemistry, because metabolic processes—and here in particular plant nutrition—encompass a large field of research.
W. Hamm wrote on this subject in 1872 about Albrecht Thaer:
He, and with him every farmer, assumed that plant food was made up of organic (combustible, arising from living beings, animals and plants) material found in the soil, and that the more of it was contained in a field in the proper state, the more fertile the land would be. This decaying material was known as humus . . . and it was believed that plants could absorb it on their own with use of the water contained in the soil. But this was an error. Some researchers had already . . . shown that plants acquire the carbon that they need from the air, and soil or mineral material was already recognized as a component of their bodies, and some doubt had arisen concerning the earlier doctrine. Then the great chemist Justus von Liebig appeared in the year 1840 and did away with the entire collection of older views on plant nutrition. He proved that a number of mineral components— potash, phosphoric acid, lime, iron, clay, magnesium oxide, sodium bicarbonate, silica, sulfur—make up the fundamental nutrients of plants in the soil; they can be recovered from the ashes of burnt plants. (Hamm 1872)
I am going to attempt to show that Thaer’s assumption might not have been an error after all.
The Eternal Search for Nitrogen
The biosphere contains a certain quantity of nitrogen in the form of organic (and generally living) compounds. According to Frederik Vester (1987), 200 billion tons of organic material are converted on and in the soil each year—as we shall see later, primarily through “eating and being eaten” processes in the form of the metabolism of living material. This vast amount of organic material is the “waste” generated by the life processes that keep the biosphere running in all its variety. But it is also the nutrients for the following year’s life processes! In this “waste,” much of which is living (1–2 tons of living organisms per 1,000 square meters of uncontaminated agricultural soil), the much-coveted nitrogen is relatively firmly bound, by, for example, being built into the organic structures of protein molecules (among other substances). This means that it cannot be washed out by the large quantities of water that are constantly flowing around it. Relevant to this issue are the findings of Virtanen, Schanderl, and Rusch, who showed that organic substances do not need to be reduced to inorganic ions in order to be absorbed by plants as nutrients once again.
Now let’s imagine an equal quantity of the synthetic, easily accessible nitrogen that we have put into circulation in the biosphere. For one thing, we have a very imprecise idea of what actually lives in the soil. Furthermore, we have essentially zero knowledge about which of the life-forms that aren’t known to us perish when we regularly apply large amounts of synthetically produced nitrogen salts.
On this subject, I will cite Gerhardt Preuschen from his Ackerbaulehre nach ökologischen Gesetzen—Das Handbuch für die neue Landwirtschaft (Agriculture According to Ecological Laws—The Handbook for the New Agriculture), written in 1991:
“For as long as people have believed that plants can subsist exclusively on water-soluble substances, they have understandably attempted to find these substances or compounds in the soil and to check the plants’ nutrient supply against an established amount, usually in a water-soluble state, and to classify them as signs of fertility. We know today that this theory was incorrect. Under very adverse conditions, plants can process water-soluble material, but they always need microbes to do so. This whole system of direct transfer of material into the plant’s body leads to diseases while at the same time damaging the life in the soil. To put it briefly—the entire mineral theory and the way that it has been applied was the wrong approach. We can also proceed on the assumption that the data used to determine actual fertility is unrelated and thus uninteresting, and in fact must sometimes be analyzed the opposite way (69).”
And he continues: “Free nitrates practically never appear in an undisturbed ecosystem. If this were not the case, rivers would have to have been carrying nitrates for centuries, and mountains of sediment would have formed in the seas and oceans, or they would contain some nitrate content. It is astonishing that scientists who want to be taken seriously continue to repeat the claim that nitrates are a natural component of the living soil and an important plant nutrient” (143).
Plants’ nitrogen supply is precisely regulated in nature. Because this aspect of plant nutrition is being ignored, we have an excess of easily soluble nitrogen compounds today.
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About Herwig Pommeresche
Herwig Pommeresche was born in Hamburg in 1938 and has lived in Norway since 1974. He received a degree in architecture from the University of Hanover. He has spent many years active as an architect and urban planner in Norway. After finishing his studies in architecture, he became a trained permaculture designer and teacher under the instruction of Professor Declan Kennedy.
Alongside other permaculture experts, he served as an organizer of the third International Permaculture Convergence in Scandinavia in 1993. He later served as a visiting lecturer at the University of Oslo. Today, Herwig Pommeresche is seen as a pillar of the Norwegian permaculture movement. He also serves as an author
and a speaker.