A large-scale experiment used human urine to fertilize crops

(ORDO NEWS) — These days, urinating on your food plants can be considered a disgusting and odd horticultural practice, despite the fact that the practice has been proven beneficial for thousands of years.

But our modern squeamishness has led gardeners and farmers alike to resort to costly fertilizers to provide their crops with the much-needed nutrients found freely in our urine.

However, some farmers most in need of these additional nutrients often do not have access to fertilizers. Many farmers, for example in remote regions of the Republic of the Niger, face nutrient depletion in the soil, as well as harsher weather and crops with difficulty.

So a team led by Niger’s National Institute for Agricultural Research researcher Hannatu Moussa tried to revive the ancient practice of using urine as fertilizer, which is practiced in parts of Asia, of course with some modern changes, such as urine disinfection to ensure safety.

A group of women from Niger volunteered to help Moussa and his colleagues test urine fertilizer on their farms. In these rugged sub-Saharan African lands, women contribute more labor to food production than men, but they have neither control over land or resources, nor easy access to information.

These women often end up with some of the most nutrient-poor fields that grow the region’s main grain, millet (Cenchrus americanus).

At first, the women named the fertilizer Oga, which means “boss” in the Igbo language. This was supposed to help bridge the social, religious, and cultural barriers to open discussion about the use of human urine.

The volunteers were then divided into two groups: the first continued to use their traditional farming methods, while the second applied Oga, with and without animal manure, on their experimental plots after being trained in its safe use.

The production of industrial fertilizers usually involves intensive mining of ores containing phosphorus and potassium.

When natural gas is burned at high temperatures, much-needed nitrogen is released from the air we breathe, one of the most intense chemical reactions requiring the release of CO2. Among other things, plants use all three of these elements for photosynthesis.

However, our urine is full of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen already in readily available form.

What’s more, compared to our poop, urine is relatively sterile when it leaves our body, thanks to the ammonia it contains. Simply passive storage of canisters at 22 to 24 °C (71 to 75 °F) for 2 to 3 months is enough to kill any remaining pathogens that can withstand prolonged exposure to an acidic liquid.

Therefore, the women were trained in this disinfection process and how to dilute the resulting Oga for use. For the first few years they used Ogy in combination with organic manure, and when that worked, they decided to try using Ogy on their own.

Over three years (2014 to 2016) and 681 trials, those who used Oga saw an average 30 percent increase in millet yields. The difference was so obvious that many other women in the area started using Oga.

“Oga is a low-risk, low-cost fertilizer option ready for distribution to sandy areas of the Sahel with low millet yields,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

If we were to use this product in industrialized countries as well, it could not only increase crop yields and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels needed to grow them, but also make our sanitation systems more sustainable.” Groups in Sweden, USA and Australia also consider the possibility of widespread use of fertilizers from urine.

“Millions upon millions of dollars a year are spent to treat our waste before it enters receiving waters to acceptable levels of nitrogen and phosphorus,” Griffith University environmental health researcher Cara Beal told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in earlier this year, discussing possible trials in Australia.

“But if we can close this feeding loop, it would make a lot of sense in terms of sustainability, circular economy and care for our planet.”

Two years after the Niger experiment, more than a thousand female farmers began using Oga to fertilize their crops.

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