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Liebig's law of the minimum, often simply called Liebig's law or the law of the minimum, is a principle developed in agricultural science by Carl Sprengel (1828) and later popularized by Justus von Liebig. It states that growth is controlled not by the total amount of resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor).
This concept was originally applied to plant or crop growth, where it was found that increasing the amount of plentiful nutrients did not increase plant growth. Only by increasing the amount of the limiting nutrient (the one most scarce in relation to "need") was the growth of a plant or crop improved. This principle can be summed up in the aphorism, "The availability of the most abundant nutrient in the soil is only as good as the availability of the least abundant nutrient in the soil." Or, to put it more plainly, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link."
Dobenecks used the image of a barrel—often called Liebig's barrel—to explain Liebig's law. Just as the capacity of a barrel with staves of unequal length is limited by the shortest stave, so a plant's growth is limited by the nutrient in shortest supply.
Liebig's Law has been extended to biological populations (and is commonly used in ecosystem models). For example, the growth of an organism such as a plant may be dependent on a number of different factors, such as sunlight or mineral nutrients (e.g. nitrate or phosphate). The availability of these may vary, such that at any given time one is more limiting than the others. Liebig's Law states that growth only occurs at the rate permitted by the most limiting.
For instance, in the equation below, the growth of population is a function of the minimum of three Michaelis-Menten terms representing limitation by factors , and .
The use of the equation is limited to a situation where there are steady state conditions, and factor interactions are tightly controlled.
More recently Liebig's Law is starting to find an application in natural resource management where it surmises that growth in markets dependent upon natural resource inputs is restricted by the most limited input. As the natural capital upon which growth depends is limited in supply due to the finite nature of the planet, Liebig's Law encourages scientists and natural resource managers to calculate the scarcity of essential resources in order to allow for a multigenerational approach to resource consumption (See:sustainability/sustainable development).
Neo-liberal economic theory has sought to refute the issue of resource scarcity by application of the law of substitutability and technological innovation. The substitutability 'law', which has a powerful influence on the discourse of ideas despite the lack of empirical evidence, states that as one resource is exhausted — and prices rise due to a lack of surplus — new markets based on alternative resources appear at certain prices in order to satisfy demand. Technological innovation implies that humans are able to use technology to fill the gaps in situations where resources are imperfectly substitutable.
Economic theories based on ceteris paribus deal only with a small selection of variables and are a weak planning tool when applied to the complex web of interconnectedness of the global market responsible for the primary consumption of natural resources. While the theory of the law of substitutability may seem to reinforce the postulation that economic growth is invulnerable to resource limits it fails to consider the underlying implication of Liebig's Law: If the resource which is limited in supply is also essential to the establishment of substitute markets, then substitution cannot occur. For example, Isaac Asimov noted:
We may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal power, and plastics for wood... but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement.
One example of technological innovation is in plant genetics whereby the biological characteristics of species can be changed by employing genetic modification to alter biological dependence on the most limiting resource. Biotechnological innovations are thus able to extend the limits for growth in species by an increment until a new limiting factor is established, which can then be challenged through technological innovation. Theoretically there is no limit to the number of possible increments towards an unknown productivity limit. This would be either the point where the increment to be advanced is so small it cannot be justified economically or where technology meets an invulnerable natural barrier. It may be worth adding that biotechnology itself is totally dependent on external sources of natural capital.