Why Panaceas Work: Recasting Science, Knowledge, and Fertilizer Interests in German Agriculture

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This article discusses the role of panaceas as functional equivalents to scientific expertise. Using the example of plant nutrition in Germany, it shows how increasing fertilizer use ran against the best scientific advice in significant ways. Ultimately, the lack of scientific knowledge helped accelerate the transition to industrialized, high-input farming. The article stresses the agency of farmers, who were key players in a complex of web of negotiations among experts, advisors, officials, and practitioners that spanned several generations. For farmers facing a wide range of difficult issues, cognitive simplicity on the plant nutrition front was more important than the side effects of excessive fertilizer use: wasting thoughts would have cost more than wasting resources. At the same time, acting against the advice of scientific experts produced an anxiety that scholars should recognize as a key aspect of agricultural modernization.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)68-86
Number of pages19
JournalAgricultural History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • fertilizers , crops , industrial agriculture , factory farming , agricultural chemistry , food crops , nitrogen , crop science , mineral fertilizers , farmers

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