Would you eat food grown using pee as fertiliser? To reduce pollution, scientists are modernising an age-old farming method

  • Human urine has nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – the nutrients plants need to grow
  • Researchers are looking at pee to replace chemical fertilisers and reduce agriculture’s environmental impact
Agence France-Presse |

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Before chemical fertilisers became prevalent, human waste used to be transported to agricultural fields to help crops grow. Photo: Shutterstock

“Go pee on the rhubarb!”

Engineer Fabien Esculier has never forgotten his grandmother’s unconventional approach to gardening – in fact, it has inspired his career.

Plants need nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – and we ingest these through food before “excreting them, mostly through urine”, said Esculier, who runs the OCAPI research programme in France looking at food systems and human waste management.

As researchers look for ways to reduce reliance on chemicals and cut environmental pollution, some are growing increasingly interested in the potential of pee.

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The problem with chemical fertilisers

Fertilisers with synthetic nitrogen, in use for about a century, have helped increase yields and boost agricultural production to feed a growing human population.

But emissions from this agricultural ammonia can combine with vehicle fumes to create dangerous air pollution, according to the United Nations. Chemical fertilisers also create emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, contributing to climate change.

Meanwhile, when they are used in large amounts, they make their way into river systems and other waterways, causing choking blooms of algae that can kill fish and other aquatic life.

Green algae blooms produce toxic and harmful effects on people, marine life and birds. Photo: EPA-EFE

But the pollution does not just come directly from the fields.

“Modern-day sanitation practices represent one of the primary sources of nutrient pollution,” said Julia Cavicchi, of the United States Rich Earth Institute, adding that urine is responsible for around 80 per cent of the nitrogen found in waste water and more than half of the phosphorus.

She added: “Since the production of synthetic nitrogen is a significant source of greenhouse gases, and phosphorus is a limited and non-renewable resource, urine-diverting systems offer a long-term resilient model for human waste management and agricultural production.”

One 2020 study by UN researchers found that global waste water has the theoretical potential to offset 13 per cent of the world’s demand for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in agriculture.

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Urine diversion is easier said than done

In the past, urban excrement was transported to agricultural fields to be used as fertiliser along with animal manure, before chemical alternatives began to replace them.

But now, if you want to collect urine, you need to rethink toilets and the sewage system itself.

A pilot project to do just that began in Sweden in the early 1990s in a selection of eco-villages. Now, there are projects in Switzerland, Germany, the US, South Africa, Ethiopia, India, Mexico and France.

“It takes a long time to introduce ecological innovations and especially an innovation such as urine separation which is very radical,” said Tove Larsen, a researcher at Switzerland’s Eawag aquatic research institute.

Collecting urine would require toilets and sewage systems to be redesigned. Photo: Shutterstock

She said the early urine-diverting toilets were considered unsightly and impractical, or raised concerns about unpleasant odours.

But she hopes a new model – developed by the Swiss company Laufen and Eawag – should solve these difficulties, with a design that funnels urine into a separate container.

Once the pee is collected it needs to be processed. Urine is not normally a major carrier of disease, so the World Health Organization recommends leaving it for a period of time, although it is also possible to pasteurise it.

Then there are various techniques for concentrating or even dehydrating the liquid, reducing its volume and the cost of transporting it to the fields.

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Not easy to stop feeling queasy about pee

Another challenge is overcoming public squeamishness.

“This subject touches on the intimate,” said Ghislain Mercier, of the publicly-owned planning authority Paris et Metropole Amenagement.

It is developing an eco-district in the French capital with shops and 600 housing units, which will use urine collection to fertilise green spaces in the city.

Mercier sees significant potential in large buildings like offices, as well as houses not connected to mains drainage.

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Also in Paris is the 211 restaurant, equipped with waterless toilets that collect urine.

“People are a little surprised, but they see little difference compared to a traditional system,” said owner Fabien Gandossi.

But are people ready to go to the next level and eat urine-fertilised foods? One study on the subject highlighted found differences from country to country. The acceptance rate is very high in China, France and Uganda for example, but low in Portugal and Jordan.

Prices of synthetic fertilisers are currently soaring because of shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has also spurred countries to consider shoring up their food security.

As prices for synthetic fertilisers go up, this could be a chance for urine fertilisers to become more widely used. Photo: Shutterstock

That could be an opportunity to help “make the subject more visible”, said Mercier.

Marine Legrand, an anthropologist working with Esculier at the OCAPI network, said there were still “obstacles to overcome”, but water shortages and increased awareness of pollution’s toll could help change minds.

“We are beginning to understand how precious water is,” she told Agence France-Presse. “So it becomes unacceptable to defecate in it.”

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