We're Facing a Fertilizer Shortage and We Could Be Flushing the Solution Down the Toilet

Researchers say urine is an untapped resource for substituting the nutrients found in synthetic fertilizers.

Excrement is the O.G. fertilizer, though, at some point, humans got away from spreading manure and instead started leaning on the synthetic stuff. Still, a recent report from the AFP suggests that society may want to revisit the ability of body waste to work as an effective, and readily available, way to add nutrients to the soil — specifically with urine.

The synthetic fertilizers used to bolster nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — all of which can be found naturally in human urine — have numerous downsides according to the report: polluting the environment both from their use and their creation. And things have recently gotten worse: The war in Ukraine is reportedly causing a fertilizer shortage.

Meanwhile, current toilet systems also create pollution, since urine and excrement create wastewater. And water itself is in increasingly short supply in many areas due to climate change.

Fresh spinach growing in a garden
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So some scientists believe these two problems could be solved in tandem: collecting human pee to turn into a source of fertilizer. In fact, we've already seen pilot programs like the infamous "Piss to Pilsner" initiative at Denmark's Roskilde music festival where urine was collected and then used to fertilize barley for beer for a future festival.

But a larger change wouldn't be easy, in part because, you know, bathroom stuff makes people uncomfortable and because society would have to rethink the entire way we deal with our wee. "It takes a long time to introduce ecological innovations and especially an innovation such as urine separation which is very radical," Tove Larsen, a researcher at Switzerland's Eawag aquatic research institute, told the AFP.

Still, if researchers are able to push the numerous benefits of collecting pee (and treating it, in case that part wasn't clear), then using it as fertilizer, maybe the idea of collecting everyone's pee and eating crops fertilized with it wouldn't sound so unpleasant?

Marine Legrand, an anthropologist who works at France's OCAPI research program, told the AFP she had another way of thinking about it. "We are beginning to understand how precious water is," she stated. "So it becomes unacceptable to defecate in it."

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