Fertilizing Our Crops With Urine: One Project Promises To Replace Chemicals With Sustainability

By Anthony Rivas on January 13, 2014 8:18 PM EST

fertilizer
The Rich Earth Institute in Vermont has developed a sustainable approach to fertilizing crops with urine, which promises to get rid of the chemical fertilizers. (Photo: tikarasha, CC BY 2.0)

American consumers have really started to pay attention to how their food is produced, with one of the most recent trend being genetically modified (GMO) food. But while studies on GMO foods haven't really found any harmful effects, there is proof that chemical fertilizers, which are widely used in crop production, are bad for the environment. How can we fix this problem? Urine is the answer to these problems, according to the Rich Earth Institute (REI) in Vermont, which sees an alternative in our own natural, body fluids.

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The organization has been testing the effectiveness of urine for growing crops since 2012, when they conducted the first field trial. Their mission is simple: replacing chemical fertilizers with urine can have a positive effect on everything from water quality and food security to economic sustainability and carbon footprint, their website says.

Essentially, both urine and chemical fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium - nutrients that crops need, which are depleted from the soil during farming. By using urine, REI is able to get all the nutrients plants need without the extra chemicals that come from sludge produced at wastewater plants - this sludge is often used as fertilizer. These benefits also translate into improved human health because it avoids reusing the harmful nitrates, which are produced in wastewater, as fertilizer.

"When people realize that they produce something every day that can be helpful to the environment and the earth, it's a very wonderful thing," Kim Nace, REI's administrative director, told Modern Farmer Magazine. REI is already looking toward its third trial, which will use about 6,000 gallons of urine. "We've given volunteers a few things to make it easier - some funnel devices and things like that."

REI's third trial will expand to three farms this year after the Institute won a U.S. Department of Agriculture SARE grant of $10,000 for its success during its first trial, which involved about 600 gallons of urine spread over crops with a horse-drawn applicator. The yield was twice that of the unfertilized controls.

Using urine for the fertilization of crops we eat may gross you out - if wastewater sludge hasn't already - but the Institute has figured out ways to clean it. Although it's already sterile when coming out of the body, they still use solar pasteurization or long-term storage in a warm greenhouse, both of which have proven effective at eliminating germs. Nace also expects to run tests on the urine for traces of drugs, but besides that, she has full support from regulators and politicians. If the project works, we could have a more sustainable cycle for plant fertilization.      

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