Bram Steiner

Soilless culture pioneer, Abram Steiner.

Abram Steiner

Abram (Bram) Steiner, one of the founding fathers of substrate culture in the Netherlands and the world, passed away on the 1 March 2016 at the age of 95. He may not be a familiar name to many in the Australian Protected Cropping industry, but his early work on plant nutrition and substrate culture were building blocks of today’s modern hydroponics industry.

Bram graduated from the University of Wageningen in the early 1940s and from 1947 worked on plant nutrition and developed an interest in soilless culture (which we take to be synonymous with the term ‘hydroponics’).

Although the US Army had successfully used hydroponics on a large scale from 1945 (the best known being Camp Chofu in Japan), commercial hydroponic use had made little progress. By 1955 there were fewer than 10 hectares in total worldwide, but there had been many commercial failures for technical or financial reasons, or both. Many of these could be put down to the wrong people trying hydroponics for the wrong reasons.

In 1955 Bram was instrumental in forming the International Working Group on Soilless Culture (IWOSC). The name was later changed to the International Society for Soilless Culture (ISOSC). Bram became the General-Secretary, and Prof. Penningsfeld of Germany the President. The group started with a total membership of twelve researchers.

Over the next two decades this group was often subject to ridicule and had to work hard to keep the flame of soilless culture research alive. For example, when IWOSC requested to hold a symposium as part of the 1961 International Horticultural Congress, ISHS responded: ”soilless culture does not have any sense, nobody seriously shall be interested.”

IWOSC held a symposium in 1958 followed in 1963 by the First International Congress on Soilless Culture at the University of Perugia in Italy. Since then the ISOSC held a Congress about every fourth year, giving nine in total, the last being in Jersey in 1996. By this time commercial soilless culture had become used widely around the world, and the ISHS, for example, now embraced it enthusiastically.

Steiner and Donnan

Bram Steiner (left) receives a presentation from ISOSC President Rick Donnan, in recognition of 40 years service to the society.
(PH&G Sept/Oct 1996 / Issue 30)

Because its major reason for existence was no longer needed, the ISOSC was closed in 2000 and its residual monies contributed to the Royal Society for Agricultural Science to set up the Bram Steiner Award for Soilless Culture. This was in recognition of the 45 years that Bram had spent as the General Secretary of ISOSC. In this position he effectively was the ISOSC. The amount of correspondence he had with those interested in soilless culture would have overwhelmed anyone less dedicated and well organised. The Bram Steiner Award also recognises the important and unique contribution he made to practical hydroponic research.

Bram first started into nutrition research in 1947. Over his ensuing career he made over 80 publications covering many aspects of hydroponic nutrition and production. There were two areas where he especially made hugely important contributions to the knowledge of hydroponic nutrition.

The first was that he proved conclusively that plants take up the nutrients that they require, provided that the root zone solution is within the wide range avoiding deficiencies or toxicities. In simple terms, this means that the plant is in control of nutrient uptake. It was common to claim that “hydroponics gives total control of the plant”. This still appears in some books and articles today and Bram proved that it is nonsense.

The second was developing the ‘Steiner universal nutrient solution’. This was not a feed solution in the usual sense, but a root zone solution suitable for growing almost all plant species. This was based upon setting up appropriate ratios of the major cations and appropriate ratios of the major anions. To maintain this solution within range required that the make-up solution for any species had to equal the uptake by that species. This led to the development of effective make-up solutions for a range of crops, firstly in rockwool and then in other media. This became the nutritional basis for the huge expansion of hydroponics in Holland during the 1980s and is used worldwide.

Bram also founded the Contact Group Soilless Plant Culture (1975), now known as the Royal Society of Agricultural Science, better known as KLV (Koninklijke Landbouwkundige Vereniging). In its formative years, KLV renamed the Contact Group the Study Circle for Soilless Plant Culture where it got a scientific base. Bram was chairman of the study circle and he organised a meeting twice a year to enable members to share knowledge in this new specialism. At the time, the society was a club of respectable grey-haired men. However, over the course of time, it developed into an association of and for agricultural scientists within which various scientific study groups operated. Today, KLV is Wageningen UR’s largest alumni network, a conduit that connects graduates and other professionals with links to Wageningen.

Bram remained active in retirement, studying and delivering lectures abroad. He became increasingly aware that the management of politics and humanity needed to change. This eventually led to his book, The future of humanity on Earth (2009), in which he recorded his observations and recommendations. Ω


PH&G April 2016 / Issue 166