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The Eternal Search for Nitrogen

By Herwig Pommeresche
Excerpt from Humusphere

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.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book Humusphere by Herwig Pommeresche. You can learn more or purchase this book at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.
Front cover Humusphere book

About the Author

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.

Author Herwig Pommeresche
Herwig Pommeresche