From Yellow to Gold: The Future of Fertilizer

By Elle O’Casey

Abe Noe-Hays and Kim Nace, founders of the Rich Earth Institute

Abe Noe-Hays and Kim Nace, founders of the Rich Earth Institute

When my friend sent me a curious headline a few weeks ago, I almost didn’t open the article. But my curiosity got the best of me and I clicked on the link: “Institute gets $3M to continue urine-to-fertilizer research.” This article in talked about a $3 million grant the Rich Earth Institute recieved to continue its research exploring how to turn human urine into fertilizer. The Brattleboro-based Rich Earth Institute is already collecting samples from 100 Brattleboro residents. The $3 million grant will now enable the Institute to move its research toward a more national scale.

This grant will last four years and includes a social research component to examine the public perceptions and reactions to the concept of urine recycling, or as some have termed it “pee-cycling”. Researchers will look into the reasons and the roots behind the public’s negative feelings toward the recycled fertilizer. Based on these public reactions, the Institute will use its findings to design educational and promotional materials to encourage the practice and make it more appealing to a broader audience.

News of this grant, and my reaction to it, got me thinking about the current fertilizer scene. While I initially turned up my nose to the concept of using human waste as fertilizer, the reality is that our growing dependence on chemical fertilizers is a far uglier, deadlier alternative. One only need to read the latest stories on this week’s proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger to see this. I am no expert in chemical fertilizer and their impacts but many others out there are. Here are a few facts from the Organic Consumers Association on the impact of chemical fertilizers that may make even the most ardent opponents to pee-cycling embrace its use.

  1. Chemical Fertilizer is the largest industry in global agribusiness, worth about $175 billion. One example of its worth was last week’s $36 billion dollar merger between Potash Corp and Agrium creating a new global fertilizer giant. While this news may have gone largely unnoticed, it is sure to have large scale implications.
  2. Large components of chemical fertilizers are composed of largely non-renewable and mined quantities of phosphorus.
  3. The fracking boom in the US has led to huge productions of nitrogen fertilizers and the dangerous effects from nitrogen in our water sources is growing. US production of nitrogen fertilizers has expanded significantly due to low natural gas prices used in its production. The reason for cheaper natural gas is due to our increased fracking operations. After years of importing nitrogen fertilizer, the US is now producing this at home. One of the three leading domestic producers of nitrogen fertilizer is Koch Industries (read: the Koch Brothers).
  4. As a nation, we still struggle with developing effective ways to monitor and control nitrogen runoff. This translates into a number of problems, one of them being hypoxic conditions (lack of oxygen) which cause fish die offs and drinking water pollution. Nitrates in our drinking water translates to toxins in our water. Nitrates leach into aquifers after farmers use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers on soil. Water with large quantities of nitrate in it causes a range of health problems, including birth defects, blood problems in babies, and cancers of the ovaries and thyroid (Mother Jones).

Another reason to become a believer in the work Rich Earth Institute is doing is simply to embrace responsible water use, particularly in our Western states. While Vermont may not lack for rainwater and snowmelt, much of the rest of the country is in dire need for water conservation measures and practices. Using, rather than flushing waste could help significantly conserve water. Small household water use changes adds up. For each flush, older toilets can use between 3-7 gallons of water. Federal standards now require new toilets to use 1.6 gallons per flush or less but the average american uses 100 gallons of water each day. One quarter of this, or 24 gallons, goes to simply the act of flushing.

There is still a long ways to go before we see widespread adoption of this and other recycled fertilizers. While the concepts may not yet be ready for implementation, there are opportunities throughout the local area to get involved with current sustainable agriculture practices. One local event to attend is the Fall Community Composting Forum. The Community Composting Forum is free and open to anyone interested in moving forward community composting projects, getting connected to community and school gardens, or just being a part of the conversation. Hosted by the Vermont Community Garden Network, the forum is a joint effort between VCGN, compost expert James McSweeney of Compost Technical Services, Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District, and gardening expert Charlie Nardozzi. The event will be on October 18 from 6:30pm-8:00pm at Woodstock Union High School and Middle School.

Do Just One Thing: Go to the Fall Community Composting Forum on October 18th

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