Friday, March 28, 2014

Once upon a time: The refuted roots of organic farming

Can you tell the difference between these two molecules of urea?
Image credit
The urea on the left can be isolated from cattle urine (urea is the principal nitrogenous waste product of amphibians and mammals). The urea on the right can be produced via the Wohler process. They are, of course, exactly the same molecule. Subscribers to organic farming methods, however, believe that the urea on the left is an acceptable nitrogen source, while the urea on the right is not.

Once upon a time, many years ago, people who considered such things believed that there were substances that could only be synthesized by living organisms. This dichotomy between living (organic) and non-living (inorganic) is the basis of today’s chemistry sub disciplines. It was understood that life arose from and involved “life forces” that were apart from the purely physical and chemical realm. In other words, all "living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things".1 This is the philosophy of “vitalism.”

Friedrich Wohler (1800-1882) photo credit
In 1828 Friedrich Wohler accidentally made urea in the laboratory. This marked the breaking of the barrier between “organic” and “inorganic” compounds (he told his teacher that he had made “urea without requiring a kidney of an animal, either man or dog.”). He had refuted a core tenant of vitalism. Wohler wrote that he had witnessed “the great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” Vitalism was fiercely debated for the next 75 years before it was replaced by our modern understanding of chemistry and biology. Yet this belief system, perhaps unknowingly, is held by many today.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) Photo credit
The man most responsible for the perpetuation of this discredited belief is Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Steiner taught his followers in the early 1920s that urea synthesized by the Wohler process was “dead.” Such synthetic fertilizers did not possess critical “vital” forces, thus yielding “dead’ food. Steiner recommended using only animal manures and crop rotation to fertilize fields. He taught his followers that the “new” food from synthetic fertilizers was spiritually and physically deficient and resulted in poor health. From Steiner’s teachings in the early 1920s arose the modern organic farming movement.

1. Bechtel,W. and R.C. Rirchardson. (1998). Vitalism. In E. Craig (Ed.), RoutledgeEncyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Vitalism. Accessed March 28, 2014

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