According to researchers, using human urine—also known as ‘peecycling’—could be the answer to the world’s chemical fertiliser woes.
The OCAPI research programme in France has been looking into the use of pee as a fertiliser, and Fabien Esculier, a researcher on the project, told Euronews that given how human urine is very nutrient-rich (containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), it is a great alternative to chemical fertilisers. Esculier went on to state that it is also a lot less polluting than its chemical counterparts, as they contain ammonia.
This is groundbreaking, considering the shortage in fertilisers that has occurred due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Analysts at Rabobank have said that Russia exports 20 per cent of the world’s nitrogen fertilisers, while Belarus is responsible for 40 per cent of the world’s potassium. Combined with the sanctions placed on Russia, farmers around the world have had their supply cut off.
Luckily, a non-profit organisation based in Vermont, called the Rich Earth Institute, has been investigating and developing alternative waste management solutions for decades—and already has its own dedicated peecycling initiative. The institute has established a research division that primarily studies how urine can be used to grow and fertilise plants, and even rents out urine collecting portable toilets for public events.
As a sustainable form of fertilisation, the organisation has been doing its own research into the effects of pharmaceuticals in human urine, and whether it negatively affects plant growth. In a study conducted between 2014 and 2022, researchers used different levels of medicine in pee and applied it to crops. They discovered that even though there were some traces of pharmaceuticals in the yield, the levels found were pretty negligible.
Abraham Noe-Hays, a co-founder of the institute, said in a video produced by the University of Michigan on peecycling that using urine instead of chemical fertilisers is far better as it is sustainably produced. “There’s no doubt that urine can be a safe fertiliser for growing any kind of crop,” he explained. So, are you ready to peecycle with a climate crisis looming over our head?
It is a warm, bright day in early February. I am indoors on a Skype call with Nadine Andrews, an eco-psychologist and psychosocial researcher, discussing climate change and food security while she makes pancakes for her family. The sizzle of batter on the pan is a comfort where the reality of our current CO2 emissions trajectory is not. Andrews used work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and she is not afraid to tell me how it is. “Climate change is happening faster and on a greater scale than scientists were anticipating from the models and that’s partly because IPCC goes on the more conservative end. All of this stuff is already happening. We have to deal with it, this is reality. We might be able to delay some stuff but actually we’re not in control of it.”
Perhaps had I wanted this pancake flipping researcher to go easier on me? Andrews tells me we must either face our fear of climate change now, “design our way into it”, or wait until we no longer have the privilege of ignoring what has already begun. She recounts an analogy about a therapist with a sign on their door which says, “either way it’s going to hurt”.
For decades, climate scientists have worried that people did not know or understand enough about climate change and that this was the reason for sluggish public and political action. What social researchers are finally beginning to understand is that it is not a lack of knowledge, but in fact too much knowledge about climate change which is the problem. What has been assumed to be a moral failure to act fast enough is now being reframed as a deep-seated psychological trait. The sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, who wrote a book called ‘Living in Denial’, thinks that people know too much about climate change. Norgaard wonders if the root of much climate inaction is not a lack but surplus of empathy, and calls climate apathy “the mask of suffering”.
It is true that when one is faced with a disturbing reality, which contradicts the business-as-usual discourse to be found everywhere else, it is easier to focus on current pancakes rather than future crop failure. It is not only that we know too much and feel too helpless, but that we also do not have the language to help us digest our profoundly modern disconnect from nature. Andrews herself is not sure which words are best to describe how we should relate to climate change.
Apparently, The Guardian uses the word “fight” a lot. To “fight” climate change is to cast nature as an enemy, when we should by now have learnt that nature is an entity to be protected, not overcome. Clearly, when we talk about fighting climate change, we mean to launch a battle cry against our own systems of excessive resource consumption. Nature does not care whether we win or lose a fight against ourselves.
If I accept the seriousness of the information about climate change with which I am presented, then I have to imagine a radically different future for myself. It makes me panic. Climate researchers I have spoken with tend to be glad that Greta Thunberg, the famous sixteen-year-old climate activist currently leading school strikes across Europe, has called for people to panic. Andrews and I both agree, though, that panic is not a universally useful term to employ, as it is not a sustainable state of emotion and is no good for building policies upon.
Andrews assures me that she, too, felt afraid before, but that now she feels profound grief about the ecological crisis. “I feel sadness now,” and she does indeed look very sad about it all. I, on the other hand, feel afraid. Seeing a climate scientist look upset is rather like seeing a parent or teacher cry when you are a child.
To write this article, I have had to face these unpleasant emotions. I have sat for hours and transcribed interviews with scientists whose courage to continue on with this emotional and political monster astounds me. My exercise has been challenging but therapeutic. It is impossible to write well in a state of panic. Instead, I have had to work through fear and helplessness in order to reach a state where I am able to articulate the emotional complexity of facing a future for which humankind is miserably maladapted. People with low incomes are especially vulnerable, although climate change does not discriminate, and the rich will not be able to buffer themselves so easily, either.
It is difficult to find the right words to describe how we are feeling about our future. Norgaard notices that people are normally unable to discuss climate change beyond a few lines of conversation. I have noticed this too. What else, beyond “it is warmer, we are fucked, fancy a pancake?”, is there to be said?
Perhaps there is a way for us to begin to move deeper into climate conversation and action once we acknowledge that fear is a powerful enabler of procrastination. Of course, it is not only fear of climate change we experience: it is a fear of economic transformation too. It is guaranteed that the more climate change activists push to halt our accelerating consumption, the more the powerful will push back and persuade us to keep on buying. It is true that when we finally do curb our consumerism, the economy will suffer and then, so will we. Either way, it hurts.
Because humans are creatures with a capacity for nuanced emotions, it seems fair to end on a positive note. We are able to hold two conflicting emotions at once. We live in fear and hope; we probably cannot live well without both. Here is how Nadine Andrews spoke to me about hope that warm day in early February. “The sorts of transformational changes that are needed offer opportunities to rethink how we want to live in the world and how we want to live with each other and how we want to live with nature. It offers the possibility for a better way of life which serves us and other beings better than the existing world.”
There is much to discuss, after all.
Thank you to Scott Bremer, Karen O’Brien, and Nadine Andrews for advising research for this article.