back to article 'Smear agricultural land with human poo'

Aptly named UK organic farming organisation The Soil Association has called for the human race to use much more of its own poo to assist food production - in an effort to stave off a new eco menace that the charity has dubbed "peak phosphorus". According to the organics group, "peak phosphorus" represents nothing less than a " …


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  1. Code Monkey

    Good idea

    Take a waste product and make something useful out of it.

    Where's the Womble icon?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Where does the Phosphorous go?

    Surely these phosphates just end up floating about in the water or in a waste treatment plant byproduct tank?

    Why not harvest them from those sources? It doesn't involve any changes to EU legislation, and if you managed to turn out commercial quantities at commercially viable prices then you could make a lot of money!

    I'd bet any process that could turn out (say) 500,000 tonnes of phosphorous annually would also create a load of useful by-products, produce useful jobs and further the need for hugely space-efficient Nuclear Power

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge


      Phosphates from agricultural run-off (and to a lesser extent, waste from sewerage processing) ends up in rivers, and, eventually, the sea, where it leads to several environmental problems, such as algal blooms, growths of toxic cyanobacteria, and eutrophication. I'd guess the reason that this happens is that it's cheaper to dig it out of the ground than to retrieve it from the environment. When the copst/benefit ratio changes in favour of extracting it from seawater, that's what'll happen. Sadly, due to the nature of capitalism, and the sluggish nature of global environmental politics, and the effect of lobby groups, it won't be before then. For the same reasons, this won't matter, as we'll all be underwater by then anyway.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up

        Thanks for a good response!

        If it's all being used by the algae and other sealife it's at least being some use- it's almost certainly easier to harvest materials from algae than just plain seawater...

        1. Disco-Legend-Zeke

          Newspaper Accounts...

          ...of algal blooms in Lake Mead mentioned strains of algae that are hyperstimulated by phosphorus content. In sunny areas, growing and harvesting these algae at the treatment plant creates an output stream of phosphorus rich organics.

          As mentioned by others, the problem with municipal sewage solids is that they contain heavy metals. Using algae to extract phosphorus from water might be a safer way to recapture it.

          Phosphorus makes up 1% of the human body but only .12% of the earth's crust making it the scarcest life critical element.

  3. Dexter

    Not Human Poo

    Night Soil, please

  4. The Bit Wrangler

    Ass Soil ?

    That has a "ring" to it !

  5. Nigel 11

    Thought they already did this?

    Sewage sludge dressing, anyone? (On the land not the letttuce, silly).

    1. Richard Barclay

      Recycled Story...

      Yes sewage sludge & bi-product has been spread on farms for ages, I used to research it nearly 15 years ago at Thames Water. Sludge is bio-digested which generates lots of methane for energy, & then denatured leaving an inert residue etc.

    2. Robert E A Harvey


      Sludge from the sewage stations is regularly added to the land round 'by 'ere, although more as a soil conditioner than a fertiliser: By the time they dig it out of the tanks most of the goodness has been washed out AIUI

      Big issue is parasite cycles. If you can separate the location where you dump yer dung from the one where you grow yer food by a fair bit, the chance of a build up of parasites is reduced. So we need to take french shit and sell them ours. Really.

    3. Michael Dunn

      Re: Sewage sludge dressing

      Milorganite - I believe it was the Milwaukee sewage works that did this - mentioned in science text books back when I was at school ('40's).

  6. Dave Bell
    IT Angle

    Real Threat, for once.

    I used to be a farmer.

    This problem is real.

    And, as far back as twenty years ago, sewage works were struggling to find somewhere to dispose of the solid residues, which were a valuable fertiliser that scared the supermarkets shitless.

    The Soil Association can be a bit controversial: they've been allowed to define "organic" without much apparent external influence. Farmers are uncertain about their motives and, sometimes, the quality of their science. But, on this topic, they're on pretty solid ground. We can argue about just when the supply of phosphates will tighten, and nitrate fertiliser may be a bigger problem that hits sooner (it's the energy input), but it's going to hit.

    And the sewage sludge is a useful source of phosphates and other nutrients.

    1. LinkOfHyrule

      But, on this topic, they're on pretty solid ground.

      Are you sure they're not on pretty soiled ground?

    2. Ef'd


      They won't be standing on solid ground when there's an E.Coli epidemic... it'll be rather muddy.

      Grabbin my coat for when shit hits the fan

  7. M Gale

    This used to be quite normal.

    Go and Google "Night Soil".

  8. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    If you want to grow your food in poo, go ahead.

    Don;t expect me to eat it though.

    Personally, I'll be fine without the liver flukes, tapeworms and various parasites that people in developing countries have to live with, pretty much as a direct result of this practice.

    1. Tony S

      Hate to tell you this ...

      ... but a substantial amount of the food that you eat is grown in soil that has been enriched with excrement. Many of the parasites etc that you refer to will be found in water or soil whether it has been fertilised by humans or not. I would suggest that if you want to avoid fertilised food, you are going to struggle to find enough to live on within a very short period of time.

      The difference between human and most other animal wastes used, is that they tend to be vegetarians, and we are omnivores. There tend to be slightly different types of intestinal flora and fauna between the different classes, but overall, it doesn't make a huge difference.

      Excrement is like Money (or Money is like Excrement) - if you pile it up in a big heap and leave it, it becomes offensive, poisons the earth and does little good. If you spread it around, it becomes less malodourous, it enriches the earth, and allows things to develop.

      1. Daniel 1

        Well, actually

        The difference between human and most other animal wastes is that animal waste is pure animal waste, whereas human waste already contains any amount of chemicals, bleaching agents, and disinfectants - even as it leaves many homes - and then gets mixed in with industrial outflows, and other contaminating sources. The problem isn't one of treating human waste to stop parasites establishing life cycles (and the only animal that this really applies to, in a major way, is pigs), its one of getting a processable product to start with.

      2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Of this, I am aware

        My point is that, whilst the soil may be teeming with various nasties originating from the excreta of several animals, most parasitic species are specific to one host species. This is the principle reason why we treat sewerage, rather than put it directly onto fields. I have no problem with the use of treated waste being used for this, nor with the use of manure on fields rather than mineral fertilisers (this is generally a good idea). The key word here is 'treated'. As far as I am aware, treated sewerage 'sludge' is (or at least was) used in this country as fertiliser already, so I was making the assumption that the lady from the SA was talking about untreated waste.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      You already do

      Out in the country farmers have huge tankers full of poop that they spray across the fields. It's not nice in the summer. Or at any time really.

      It gets worse too. You know how we like to eat cows? Well they poop on their OWN FOOD (that is to say grass) and also on each other for some reason.

      tl;dr poop is everywhere

      1. howard bowen 1

        It Stinks It stinks It stinks in the summer

        If your a farmer near Ipswich then in the summer I guarantee you that your ears were really burning. Because this practice just REEEEKS. They don't use the denatured, bio digested, sanitised version oh no. They just empty the cess pits over the land. Utter Gits.

        If it isn't the stink from the Sugar Beet factory cause nasty niffs then it's these farming gits spreading the raw unprocessed sheeeyite everywhere..

        Now why did I move away.......

    3. Jim Carter

      Oh my...

      Have you not heard of sanitisation? It can all be cleaned before it is recycled. At the end of the day phosphates are phosphates, no matter the source.

  9. skeptical i

    With all the pharmaceuticals humans ingest ...

    ... I'd approach the use of human outputs for fertilizer with caution. It's been reported that many drugs (including psychoactives, post- menopausal hormone supplements, and caffeine) are not being fully metabolized by the users and these "leftovers" are showing up in the waste stream. Perhaps once the output is composted these leftovers break down into inert stuff (so we don't get caffeinated cabbage ... or would this be a good thing?).

    Also, at what point would these outputs be harvested? Once they get to municipal processing plants, they are usually contaminated with stormwater runoff and other sources of heavy metals and other toxins (I believe the "biosolids" sold by these plants are banned for use as fertilizer in some areas for this reason). From a product purity standpoint, encouraging the use of composting toilets would be an ideal starting point but I suspect there will be ... resistance ... to this idea amidst the public.

    Otherwise, the general idea is worth exploring as it could be a win-win for agriculture and for municipal waste management.

  10. Tim Worstal

    Number 2 has it

    Entirely simple to stick a capture circuit into a sewage plant. No need to go and stick the shit on the fields: just extract the element and put it into the standard fertiliser making process.

    I'm absolutely certain that a bit of googling around could find someone already with a workable system.

    Oh, look:

    1. Michael Dunn

      Crystal Green, eh?

      How big a step from Crystal Green to Soylent Green?

  11. Keith Williams
    Thumb Down

    Welcome to Walkerton On

    Any one interested in this process should review what happened in Walkerton, Ontario where farm runoff infected the watersupply and a breakdown in the management of the watersupply caused half the population to fall ill and the deaths of 7 people.

    This is a BAD idea.

    1. M Gale

      This is not limited to night soil.

      Any large amounts of any kind of fertilizer (or pesticide for that matter) in the water supply is a very bad thing. Phosphates? Nitrates? Good for plants, not so for animals.

  12. Colin Miller

    grow compost

    I heard somewhere that the best way to do this is to treat the sewage as normal (as Nigell11) said.

    However, due to human pathogens (and tomato seeds) surviving the process, the sludge is not directly put on food crops.

    Instead, it is used to fertilize phosphorus-rich crops. These are then used as compost for the food crops. Most human pathogens can't survive the year-long delay from output-to-input that this causes.

    1. Red Bren

      Not just pathogens

      Most human shareholders can't survive the year-long delay between investment and dividend!

    2. mafoo
      Thumb Down

      its already done

      I remember the council in Galashiels did this on some common land and had to bar people from entering it for a good 6-12 months because it was a serious health hazard, especially if there was a chance that the fields would get above 35˚C.

      Unfortunately the person who wrote this paper has their degree in what is basically geography, and not biology. Anyone who's done A level biology knows this is a bad idea (™), for so many reasons.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hmmm, I wonder ...

    Aren't there some mega-intensive cow farms in USA?

    Saw something on the tele about it and how developers are looking at a mega-cow farm in Lincolnshire, UK.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Any Lincs readers here?

      Can they confirm sighting of these mega-cows?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Why's that? Are mega-cows tastier than normal ones?

    3. Robert E A Harvey


      Nocton. Very contraversial. Battery cage cows, rather than hens. Nasty.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Already happening

    Here in a remote corner of the British Isles.

    The waste is baked at high temperature into pellets before use on land.

    Might even be UV treated before baking (not sure though).

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They already do this

    Sewage works already sell the human shite they gather to farms for growing mushrooms and potatoes. Perhaps this is just a call to do more of it?

    I always wash my mushrooms and potatoes. I even cut off the ends of the mushroom stalk if I don't like the look of them.

    Looks like Tommy director Ken Russell got the last laugh, eh?

    1. M Gale

      Hence the phrase "Treat them like mushrooms."

      IE, keep them in the dark and feed them shit.

  16. randerson

    Done That

    Colorado USA has been doing this for quite awhile


  17. Alan Firminger

    We are Victorians

    There are 40 million sheep in New Zealand, and none use a toilet.

    The quote is from fiction, but I have always understood that to be the order of the stock.

  18. Joe User

    In other words....

    Everyone take a wee on tomorrow's lunch.

  19. Puck

    cut out the middleman, baby!

    the human fertiliser story had me very much in mind of a certain John Waters film:-)

  20. E 2

    Not a radical rethink

    But a de-think I'd say. Our ancestors were not using chemical fertilizers prior to 60-odd years ago!

  21. Rob 21
    IT Angle


    I shall be taking up last years poo during this cold snap and putting it around the apple trees. The worst part of the pit compost toilet is the steamy vapour that gives you a damp behind on cold mornings. After a couple of years intermittent use of the things, I'd rather have a dunny than an indoor one, even on days like these. The best ones are out in the woods, just a seat with a view in the middle of nature. Magic.

  22. Donald Atkinson

    A really bad idea

    The solids captured at the treatment plant contain far more than just human poo. It contains all manner of toxics from washing and other processes not to mention all the other flushable items that get flushed. It isn't fertilizer, it is a toxic witches brew of Lord only knows what.

    Use it as a feedstock for a recovery process if you can turn a dime doing it but don't be dumping the raw material on the land.

  23. Chris Fox


    Why the cynical tone and "scare quotations" in the article? As Dave Bell says above, peak phosphorus is a real problem, even if some IT journalists appear not to have heard about it before The soil association is just one of many organisations that are concerned with it and its impact on humanity. The scarcity of supply is one reason why the UN condones export tariffs on phosphorus. Without some form of recycling or alternative sources, agricultural production will most likely crash. Many would think that recycle sewerage is somewhat preferable to mass starvation, and yet more wars over limited resources.

  24. tony trolle

    b4 u all poo poo this story

    over 30 years ago our new school playing fields had human fertilizer sprayed over it, Came from Three Valleys Water in Hertfordshire. smelled for about two years.......

  25. JaitcH

    The Chinese used to do this big time, then they figured out why they were so ill

    All over rural China you see methane generators where 'night soil', so called as it earlier collected overnight, would be placed and it's degeneration would cause the gas. It's used for cooking and water boiling.

    Only the poorest of peasant farmers use this excrement, as the risk of illness is offset by their desire not to die of starvation. Even moderately wealthy farmers buy 'artificial' fertilisers as the added cost is more than offset by the increase in crop output.

    Here in VietNam around 94% of sewage is dumped UNTREATED into our lakes, rivers and the sea. Even farmers on the banks of these polluted waterways - think SaiGon has around 12-million rear ends - don't use river water to irrigate their crops.

    How ill-informed can this UK outfit be? They must be funded by pig and chicken farmers looking for a place to dump their shit. Imagine the NHS costs?

  26. Anonymous Coward

    Could we all get one?

    "Her PhD was an examination of the development of UK Government policy on organic food and farming over the last 25 years."

    Which university is dishing out PhD's for a competent journo's Sunday papers column - I'd like to go there?

    Yes, I really have a first degree cert in the pocket

  27. Allan George Dyer

    But I thought...

    wee flushed it into the sea to encourage an algal bloom to absorb all that nasty CO2 in the atmosphere.

  28. Peter Dawe

    Cucumbers are worse than beef

    Once again the "Greens" attribute veggies as the saviors of the world. But Cucumbers and most other veg are as bad as beef. This is because only Grains, pulses and roots are "good". The extreme is Cucumbers these have a massive environmental footprint but have negligible nutritional value!

  29. John Lodge

    So what's new

    45 years ago my old man bought a lorry load of Dagfert for his new garden. This was human waste that had been composted on the Rainham marshes for a while and it worked as it was supposed to - even got free tomato plants for a few years.

    Christ only knows why people are so bloody precious about poo, it's been around a while and has always been used for fertilisation. It's a bloody site better that using rock phosphorous.

    In a few years time you'll have little choice anyway!

  30. Tom 7

    So you people are quit happy to be full of

    it but the minute it comes out of your body its scares some more out of you?

  31. Tron Silver badge

    The hint of sneering in articles on the environment... becoming a pain. The Reg might know what it's talking about regarding IT, but when they cover environmental stories, they are out of their comfort zone and it shows. Take environmental issues seriously and lose the Clarksonism or one day you might open the curtains and find that the shit really has hit the fan. There are worse things in life than a blue screen of death, and 'long term' doesn't mean the time between versions of Windows.

    Humanity has used its own crap as a fertiliser for centuries. There are issues, especially with all the other stuff that goes down the waste pipes. Why use pesticides (which pollute) and over-produce at the same time? That's insane.

    It's not just a food problem. All cotton used to be grown organically. Now most of it is grown with really dangerous pesticides that kill the soil as a living system, poison farmers, can leave residues that damage people already suffering in the slave economies of sweat shops and make large corporates rich at everyone's expense, so you can have cheap, fashionable, throw-away tat.

    'Eco Chic' by Matilda Lee. Worth a read. The author probably can't code in Java, but maybe you could still respect her knowledge and arguments and you might even be shocked enough to change what you do as a consumer to make a difference. And the same goes for food shopping.

    Buy organic food, and you give farmers the chance to farm without coming into daily contact with chemicals that poison them and the environment. Distributing the difference in cost amongst consumers actually works. The Soil Association are widely respected for their work, although many politicians and multinational GM food corporates don't like them, which is something of a badge of honour, and should tell you whose side they are on.

    Neither the supermarkets nor the pesticide manufacturers have your best interests at heart. The farmers are doing the work and the environment is taking the hit. Only altering consumption patterns can change this. That's you, when you do your shopping. Pay a little more and make a difference. The alternative to organic isn't 'conventional' or 'normal' it is 'grown with the use of pesticides at the expense of the environment and your childrens' future'.

  32. David Pollard

    No mention of uranium?

    Uranium is present in phosphate rock at levels typically between 50 and 200 ppm. Estimates of the amount that could be recovered during fertiliser production range between 3,700 and 11,000 tons/year, but until recently the price of uranium has been too low to make this generally worthwhile.

    It's surprising that although large amounts of uranium have been being spread around onto crops there seems never to have been a campaign from the greenies calling for a ban on all fertilisers which have more than small traces of radioactivity.

  33. Equitas
    Paris Hilton

    Changes -- hormonal and otherwise

    It's a little bit different now from what it was fifty years ago -- sewage of human origin contains very high levels of oestrogens and sundry assorted potent drug residues.

    Add the percentage of pre-menopausal women on the pill to the percentage of post-menopausal women on HRT and you've got about half the female population swallowing -- and duly excreting -- enormous quantities of oestrogen which thus goes into the food chain .......... with consequent effects on males.

    Paris, because she prefers males to be males.

  34. hshields

    Infectious human & animal prions in sewage sludge

    The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified infectious human and animal prions (think Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting Disease, Alzheimer's, Creutzfeld Jakob Disease, etc.) as emerging pathogenic contaminants of concern in sewage sludge "biosolids".:

    Prions are found in the blood, urine and feces of human and animal prion victims.

    Dr. Adriano Aguzzi: "Further research by the team showed that, if inflammation is induced in any excretory organ of the body, prions are excreted in whatever substance the organ excretes.

    Alzheimer's Disease (AD) has been identified by scientists as a prion


    There are 5.3 million victims of AD in the US who may be excreting infectious prions in their urine and feces to sewers, where the wastewater treatment process reconcentrates the prions in the sewage sludge:

    But the EPA and waste industry are making FALSE statements to the public. Even though they acknowledge there are prions in Class A sludge "biosolids" compost

    they still promote and advertise this contaminated waste for use in home flower and vegetable gardens, and parks, playgrounds, ballfields, where children with their hand-to-mouth behavior eat dirt and play as being "STERILE" and "PATHOGEN-FREE".

    University of Melbourne, October 2009 - The human prion is a hundred thousand times more difficult to deactivate than the animal form of infective agent:

    2007 - Dr. Joel Pedersen, et als: Oral transmissibility is enhanced by a common soil mineral which binds prions and can increase the infectious titer by a factor of 680.

    In the July 3, 2010 issue of VETERINARY RECORD, renowned Univ. of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Pedersen stated: “Finally, the disposal of sludge was considered to represent the greatest risk of spreading (prion) infectivity to other premises.”

    Helane Shields, PO Box 1133, Alton, NH 03809 603-875-3842 Prions in sludge:

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