Japan Revives Human Waste Use as International Fertilizer Prices Soar

With global fertilizer costs soaring to historic highs in recent years, the Japanese government is considering using recycled human waste as an alternative to conventional fertilizers. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has had massive global repercussions, including a severe fertilizer shortage, which has caused international fertilizer prices to spike.

In 2021 alone, Russia exported a whopping 11.8 metric million tons of muriate of potash (MOP); 7 million metric tons of urea; 5.93 million metric tons of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium fertilizers; and 4.32 million metric tons of ammonium nitrate. Russia and Ukraine together provide around 28% of the world’s potassium phosphorus, and nitrogen fertilizers and the ongoing war has significantly affected global supplies, forcing countries such as Japan that rely on fertilizer imports to find alternative sources.

With Japan’s history of using human waste as fertilizer, it is not surprising that the nation is turning back to old knowledge to fill current fertilizer supply gaps. Throughout the nation’s early modern period, farmers living on the fringe of urban areas would purchase human waste from cities and use it to fertilize their plants.

Called “night soil,” the use of human waste fell out of practice as sewage systems and treatment facilities became more prevalent across the country. However, there has been interest in reviving the old agricultural technique in Japan for at least a decade, and the Russia-Ukraine war significantly increased interest in the idea as fertilizer imports became more costly.

One Japanese treatment facility began producing human waste fertilizer in 2010 but saw demand for its product increase by 160% year-over-year earlier this year. According to facility vice president Toshiaki Kato, the company’s fertilizer is in demand because it is cheap and can help customers reduce their costs in an era where farming is becoming increasingly expensive. On top of that, Kato says, converting human waste into fertilizers is “good for the environment.”

Sewage sludge disposal, which is the usual way Japan deals with human waste, especially in urban areas, is incredibly expensive and damaging to the environment. The fertilizer is produced from the combination of human waste collected from cesspits and treated sewage sludge sourced from septic tanks. The resulting product is called shimogoe and sells for $1.10 (160 yen) per 33 pounds, one-tenth of the cost of imported fertilizers.

Officials in southwestern Japan say human waste fertilizer sales are up by two to three times, and groups from several municipalities have visited the region to learn from the program and replicate it in their own communities.

Conventional fertilizer manufacturers such as Compass Minerals International Inc. (NYSE: CMP) have their work cut out to ensure adequate supplies of fertilizers on the global market at affordable prices despite the ongoing geopolitical tensions and wars.

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