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Could you eat this? Hunt for natural fertilizer leads to human urine

Oct. 7, 2007
Courtesy American Chemical Society
and World Science staff

Re­search­ers are re­port­ing suc­cess­ful use of an un­likely crop fer­ti­liz­er that’s in­ex­pen­sive, abun­dant, and un­de­niably or­gan­ic: hu­man urine.

Cab­bage fer­ti­lized us­ing hu­man urine. (Cour­te­sy Hel­vi Hei­no­nen-Tan­ski, Uni­ver­si­ty of Kuo­pio)


De­spite the “yuk!” fac­tor, healthy peo­ple’s urine is rich in ni­tro­gen and oth­er nu­tri­ents—and vir­tu­ally ster­ile, the sci­en­tists said. Urine has been used as fer­ti­liz­er since an­cient times and its use, they found, re­sults in good, fast-growing cab­bage.

“Hu­man urine could be used as a fer­ti­liz­er for cab­bage and does not pose any sig­nif­i­cant hy­gien­ic threats or leave any dis­tinc­tive fla­vor,” they wrote in a pa­per de­tail­ing the findings.

The au­thors, Suren­dra K. Prad­han of the Un­ivers­ity of Kuo­pio, Fin­land, and col­leagues, said urine fer­ti­liz­er is rarely used to­day, but that the idea has gained at­ten­tion in some ar­eas. That’s be­cause more farm­ers are em­brac­ing or­gan­ic pro­duc­tion meth­ods and try­ing to re­duce use of syn­thet­ic fer­ti­liz­ers.

The re­search­ers col­lect­ed urine from pri­vate homes and used it to fer­ti­lize cab­bage. Then they com­pared the re­sult­ing crops to those grown with con­ven­tion­al in­dus­t­ri­al fer­ti­liz­er and no fer­ti­liz­er. 

Growth and bi­o­mass were slightly high­er with urine than with con­ven­tion­al fer­ti­liz­er, they found; there was no dif­fer­ence in the plants’ nu­tri­tional val­ue. The find­ings are sched­uled for pub­lica­t­ion for the Oct. 31 is­sue of the Jour­nal of Ag­ri­cul­tur­al and Food Chem­is­try.

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Researchers are reporting successful use of an unlikely crop fertilizer that’s inexpensive, abundant, and undeniably organic: human urine. Despite the “yuk!” factor, healthy people’s urine is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients—and virtually sterile, the scientists said. Urine has been used as fertilizer since ancient times and its use, they found, results in good, fast-growing cabbage. “Human urine could be used as a fertilizer for cabbage and does not pose any significant hygienic threats or leave any distinctive flavor,” they wrote in a paper scheduled for publication for the Oct. 31 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The authors, Surendra K. Pradhan of the University of Kuopio, Finland, and colleagues, said urine fertilizer is rarely used today, but that the idea has gained attention in some areas. That’s because more farmers are embracing organic production methods and trying to use fewer synthetic fertilizers. The researchers collected urine from private homes and used it to fertilize cabbage. Then they compared the resulting crops with those grown with conventional industrial fertilizer and no fertilizer. Growth and biomass were slightly higher with urine than with conventional fertilizer, they found; there was no difference in the plants’ nutritional value.