Human Waste May Help Address Global Fertilizer Shortage

For the past couple of years, the world has been gripped by a fertilizer shortage that has impacted food production across several continents and significantly increased fears of food insecurity. The fertilizer shortage worsened in early 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and disrupted crucial shipments of fertilizer.

Since Russia is the largest nitrogen fertilizer exporter and the second-largest exporter of potassium and phosphorus fertilizers in the world, farmers across the globe felt these shipment disruptions acutely. Furthermore, Russia’s ally Belarus, another powerhouse in fertilizer production, was forced to deal with Western sanctions, further reducing the number of fertilizer shipments leaving the region. Large countries such as the United States, China and India as well as smaller nations in Africa and South America found themselves contending with a massive shortage of fertilizers.

However, tests on cabbage plants show that farmers across the world may be able to safely replace fertilizers with human waste. The tests suggest that fertilizers made using recycled human urine and feces are as safe and effective as traditional fertilizers. In fact, using such fertilizers could be a great way to address the ongoing global fertilizer shortage and reduce soaring food prices.

There are still plenty of things to consider before turning to human-waste fertilizers. While human waste can be a good source of phosphorous and nitrogen for plants, it could also cause disease-causing parasites and pathogens that could contaminate the soil and even end up in plants.

For their study, the researchers treated the waste to eliminate this possibility and tested for more than 300 chemicals, including insect repellents, flame retardants and pharmaceuticals, to eliminate the chance of contamination. They detected 11 pharmaceuticals in the compost and only two in the edible parts of the cabbage but concluded that the substances were so low in concentration you would have to eat half a million cabbages to get just a single dose.

Franziska Häfner from Zurich-based Agroscope and her colleagues compared cabbages that had been grown using fertilizers made from treated human waste with cabbages grown with an organic fertilizer made from ethanol production by-product vinasse. The investigators found that the cabbages grown using nitrified urine fertilizers (NUFs) yielded just as many cabbages as those grown with vinasse.

While cabbage plants grown with fecal compost or compost plus NUFs had lower yields, they could increase carbon content in the soil over the long-term. Häfner and her team concluded that fertilizers derived from recycled human waste are “viable and safe” to use as nitrogen fertilizers in cabbage cultivation.

As these new forms of fertilizers slowly make their way onto the market, traditional fertilizer makers such as Compass Minerals International Inc. (NYSE: CMP) will still have to address the huge existing demand until viable alternatives are commercially available.

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