Final Report for OW14-020
TWO COMPLIMENTARY INQUIRIES
This project looked at two inquiries - field tests and market evaluation of urine as a fertilizer. This report will present portions of each inquiry under the respective sections.
We can establish safe, appropriate methods for capture and treatment of human urine to be used as fertilizer as occurs in other countries. The questions this project investigated are: will producers be willing to use this fertilizer and will consumers accept produce grown with such fertilization. This project employed a number of engagement strategies to compel a dialogue on human urine. The underlying objective was to move the discussion beyond the “ick” factor to a capture a meaningful consideration of urine as a valuable resource. Opinions were solicited from representatives along the full spectrum of our food system, from regulatory agencies to producers to distributors to consumers. While this was an introductory sampling, it provides a valuable insight into areas of support and concerns from those who can influence the advancement of this fertilizer.
To better under urine’s opportunities and constraints from a grower’s perspective, an email invitation to take an online survey was sent to over 130 independently owned farms in Oregon and Washington. Thirty-two farmers responded. An additional 41 surveys were completed at Oregon State University’s 2015 Small Farms Conference. Sixty-eight percent (68%) said they are in need of a fast-acting nitrogen fertilizer seasonally, and 66% own the equipment to distribute liquid fertilizer. Because 68% sell direct to customers, consumer acceptance of produce fertilized with this resource rated high. But 64% responded yes to the question that if urine was treated according to a standardized method, should it be allowed as a fertilizer on certified organic crops.
Consumer attitudes were both captured in online and in person surveys and through focus groups conducted by DHM Consulting. The results of both were quite similar, with positive support for the use of human urine as a fertilizer, even on crops for human consumption.
To increase awareness and understanding, educational tools were produced, including a website, (www.TheGiveBackProject.com), an online animation, a brochure, and a PowerPoint presentation.
The other significant component of this project was the collaboration with regional farms to test the efficacy of urine in comparison to organic fertilizers on an edible crop. Small scale observational trials, growing sweet corn, were conducted at four farms in Oregon this past summer. Overall, urine’s performance was comparable to chicken manure, feather meal, and soybean meal. Unexpected factors disrupted the results at two of the sites. But Big Leaf Farm’s and Dancing Roots Farm’s plots showed very promising results for the urine based fertilizer. The corn production on the urine fertilized plots equaled or exceeded production on the organic fertilizer plots.
Everyday, every one of us produces and releases an estimated 1.5 quarts of urine. Typically, this is captured in a porcelain bowl and transported, through a series of pipes, to a wastewater facility to be treated with a very energy intensive process. The nitrogen in the urine contributes to 80% of the total nitrogen load at the facility, requiring some wastewater treatment plants to take additional steps to moderate this level prior to discharging the treated water into our waterways.
An alternate path is to recognize urine as a resource. According to the World Health Organization, this universally available liquid’s composition of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium is very similar to commercial fertilizer, and these nutrients are readily available to plants. Urine also contains beneficial micronutrients, essential for plant growth, but usually missing in synthetic fertilizers. Essentially sterile if captured at the source with the use of urinals and urine diverting toilets, urine is a distinctly different resource than biosolids. In case of any contamination, full pathogen removal can be achieved with extended storage or pasteurization. Once capture, treatment, and application logistics are stabilized, human urine could provide a consistently priced fertility option.
Health and safety concerns have guided our dependence on disposal based sanitation and increased our reliance on synthetic based fertilizers. But other countries are diverging from these energy intensive and environmentally damaging solutions. Sweden has over 20 communities using urine diverting toilets to direct urine to storage tanks so it can later be pumped and transported to neighboring farms. Other countries, such as Germany and Australia, have a few commercial buildings that have installed urine diverting toilets. Significant efforts are underway to educate farmers, in many countries, about the benefits of using urine as a fertilizer.
- Validate that urine is a viable fertilizer.
- Identify opportunities and constraints for the use of urine in agriculture.
- Engage Oregon producers in a dialogue about human-derived fertility.
- Evaluate consumer support for urine fertilized produce.
OBJECTIVES/PERFORMANCE TARGETS - FIELD TESTS
Field tests, conducted in many other countries, have verified the efficacy of urine as a fertilizer in comparison to chemical fertilizers. The objectives of conducting field tests in Oregon were to: demonstrate urine’s capabilities as a fertilizer to Oregon farmers and to compare urine to organic fertility options typically used by sustainable farmers in the Pacific Northwest.
OBJECTIVES/PERFORMANCE TARGETS - MARKET EVALUATION
Much of the research on urine based fertilizer has focused on analyzing its properties and performance. Given recent concerns regarding food safety and the use of manure based fertilizer, its critical to understand the cultural sensitivities likely to emerge with the promotion of this alternative fertilizer.
Many people are familiar with the use of biosolids, and this “waste” has gained some acceptance. But the majority of those asked had never heard about the use of urine as a fertilizer.
The objective of the market evaluation was to solicit opinions on this topic from representatives along the full spectrum of our food system, from regulatory agencies to producers to distributors to consumers. While this was an introductory sampling, it provides insight into areas of support and concerns of those who can influence the advancement of this fertilizer.
MATERIALS AND METHODS - FIELD TESTS
Small scale observational trials for the efficacy of urine as a nitrogen fertilizer for crops were conducted at four farms in Oregon. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality biosolids manager encouraged limitation on the size of the field tests and volume of urine to be captured and applied. Therefore the field tests were quite small. Each farm planted three plots of Silver Queen sweet corn, (urine fertilized, organic product fertilized, and control) with each plot containing 30 plants.
Sweet corn was selected because its an easy to grow edible crop, it has a high nitrogen demand, and Oregon State University (OSU) had conducted extensive research on its nitrogen needs.
Urine was collected by the PI, at her house, and stored for 30 days. It’s nutrient composition was tested by Control Laboratories, in California, revealing an NPK 0.45 – 0.07 – 0.24. The rate of nutrients is quite low due to urine’s composition of 95% water. If the water was removed, the resulting NPK would be in the range of 9-1-5. The nutrient levels will vary, depending on diet, exercise, and water consumption. The average NPK levels, based on international research, are 10-3-4. The farmers interviewed for this project shared their challenge with obtaining necessary nitrogen levels without over applying phosphorous and appreciated urine’s higher ratio of nitrogen to phosphorous.
Regarding concerns about the high sodium content in urine and the build up in the soil, Don Wysocki, a soil scientist at Oregon State University, was contacted to share his view, via email. According to him, “urine can add to soluble salts in the soil. If applied at high rates, soluble salts could build up, if salts were not leached. Also sodium could become a problem, if the soil sodium content is already near an unacceptable level. This would be true for any liquid fertilizers that had nutrient composition and concentrations similar to urine.” In arid areas this could be an issue. In regions such as the Willamette Valley of Oregon, with its higher precipitation rate, the salts should likely be leached out.
Urine was applied at all sites in two applications. The first application was undiluted, poured into the soil two inches from the seed, at the rate of 30lbN/acre. The hole was immediately covered over to prevent any volatilization. The second application was based on a soil test conducted at the five-leaf phase. Oregon State University Extension Services’ guideline, Sidedress N rate for sweet corn in western Oregon provided guidance on the additional amount of urine to add, as a sidedress, at this time. The amounts varied depending on the soil test results for nitrogen levels. The urine was diluted with water, 3:1, to avoid any potential burning of the plant.
 Sweet Corn (Western Oregon). Hart JM, Sullivan, DM, Myers, JR, Peachey, RE. Nutrient Management Guide. EM 9010-E, Oregon State University Extension Service. October 2010. Page 10.
MATERIALS AND METHODS - MARKET EVALUATION
A number of techniques were employed to capture opinions. For organizations, the PI sought out individuals who could share views on the organization’s behalf. For farmers, in person and online surveys were conducted. For consumers, focus groups and surveys were conducted. According to market research consulting firms, three focus groups, comprised of six participants per group, provides a high degree of accuracy into public opinion. As a means to verify these opinions, and as an outreach tool, 177 in person and online surveys were also conducted.
RESULTS - FIELD TESTS
Overall the urine’s performance was comparable to the other organic fertilizers. The field tests also revealed the importance of soil type, crop selection, and application rates.
Unexpected factors disrupted the results at two of the sites. Due to its characteristics, (fast acting nitrogen, liquid state, high percentage of water) the application rate for the urine erred on the conservative side. The intent was to minimize any potential leaching. But, at these two farms, multiple applications would likely have increased productivity.
At Rockwood Urban Farm, the farmers selected to use Nutri Rich Chicken Manure 4-3-2, applied at the rate of 104lbN/acre, in two applications. The urine was applied at the rate of 163lbN/acre, also in two applications. The farm is situated in an area of Portland with a layer of river rock about 6” below the surface. This may have hindered the availability of nitrogen in the urine fertilized plot. Initially these plants were maturing at the same rate as the Nutri Rich fertilized plot. But towards the later stage of the corn’s maturation, the urine plot’s plants were stunted and, at harvest, the corn productivity was 1/3 less than the Nutri Rich plot. An assumption is that for this soil/rock composition, the urine should have been applied more than twice, ensuring adequate levels of nitrogen for the plants. A soil test conducted just prior to harvest, by A & L Western Agricultural Laboratories in Oregon, revealed the urine fertilized plots to be deficient in nitrogen, 2ppm N, compared with the Nutri Rich plot at 11 ppm N.
Multiple applications could have also benefited the urine fertilized plot at Food Waves Farm in Colton due to its fast draining soil. Urine was applied at the rate of 105lbs N/acre. The farmer selected to apply Stuzman Chicken Manure 3-2-2 at the rate of 900lbs N/acre. (The farmer acknowledged his miscalculation in the application rate of the manure.) Again, for the first half of the growing period, the crops on both fertilized plots were maturing equally. But, by harvest, the urine plot produced only 38 marketable ears compared to the chicken manure plot’s 47 ears. The soil test revealed 11 ppm N for the urine plot compared to 19 ppm N for the chicken manure plot. A leaf test was conducted, by Agsource Laboratories in Oregon, revealing the urine plot leaves to have 1.76% N compared with 2.28% N for the chicken manure plot. There is a degree of uncertainty with the results of this test, considering the chicken manure plot received 900lbs N/acre but was also low in N.
At both of these sites, drip irrigation may be a preferred means to distribute the urine. This would allow for frequent fertilization throughout the growing season.
Big Leaf Farm and Dancing Roots Farm both showed very promising results for the urine fertilizer.
At Big Leaf Farm, in Eagle Creek, the farmer wanted to compare urine with GMO soybean meal, with 7-9% nitrogen, a fertility source he typically uses. The soybean meal was applied at the rate of 100lbsN/acre. The total urine was applied at the rate of 135lbsN/acre. A soil test was conducted, by A & L Lab, at the end of the growing season, revealing rates of 30ppm N for the soybean meal fertilized plot vs 6ppm N for the urine fertilized plot. A leaf test also conducted at this time by AgSource Lab revealed both plots to be deficient in nitrogen (1.70% N for the urine plot and 1.74% for the soybean meal plot). Plot productivity was measured by marketable ears. The quantities were comparable with the soybean meal plot producing 40 ears and the urine plot 36 ears.
Dancing Roots Farm in Troutdale selected to compare the urine with feather meal 13-0-0. Based on the results of a pre-planting soil test, the farmers added pelletized lime and fish bone meal to ensure phosphorus and potassium levels were sufficient. Feather meal was applied at the rate of 125lbsN/acre and urine was applied at the rate of 189lbsN/acre. The soil test at harvest and the post harvest leaf test revealed nitrogen deficiencies on both plots. The urine fertilized plot’s plants were taller and the ear productivity was slightly higher than the feather meal fertilized plot, 25 marketable ears compared to 18 ears.
An unexpected finding was from the taste test comparison. While not conducted as an official blind test, the farmers compared the taste of the urine fertilized corn to the organic fertilized corn. At harvest, consuming the corn raw, the farmers found the urine fertilized corn to be noticeably sweeter, with fuller flavor than the other corn. Could the sodium content have contributed to the flavor? Further exploration in this area could be interesting from a culinary perspective.
RESULTS - MARKET EVALUATION
Public agencies in Oregon and Washington were contacted. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) expressed a degree of hesitation regarding allowing urine to be captured in volume and applied to land. Their recommendation was to minimize the scale of the field tests and forgo meaningful collection volumes until they could determine a regulatory framework they were comfortable with. Washington’s Department of Ecology’s biosolids coordinator offered an alternate view, stating that Ecology would not regulate the urine as that they recognize it as a liquid, and, therefore, do not considered it a biosolid.
Representatives of the Oregon Health Authority shared their views. They do not regulate the use of human waste but provide guidance to the DEQ. They have general support for the use of urine as a fertilizer. OHA’s position is to ensure that the urine use does not threaten occupational health for the farmer and public health for the neighboring community. For them, the greater concerns are pathogens and the potential for nutrient overload.
Both states’ departments of agriculture have jurisdiction over the land application of urine. A fertilizer specialist with the Washington Department of Agriculture shared that his main concern is regarding the minimal nutrient value and heavy metal content. They will allow the urine to be land applied but to not be formerly labeled as a fertilizer, unless it goes through a review process to ensure it carries the stated nutrient value. A fertilizer specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture echoed this position. An environmental health specialist, also with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, stated that his division does not regulate the application of fertilizer, only post harvest activities.
GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification is not regulatory but many vendors pointed to the value of the program for providing some assurance of safety for the produce they buy. The GAP Certification, Development and Program Manager, for the Oregon Department of Agriculture said that from her perspective, farmers could use urine as a fertilizer, as long as it was treated for any potential pathogens and stored properly on the farm.
Oregon OSHA was contacted. Their rules do not cover urea or ammonia. They offered general personal protective equipment (PPE) recommendations for those handling the urine.
Numerous attempts were made to contact the Oregon Farm Bureau’s Executive Vice President. When he was finally reached, he deferred comment.
The opinion of the Clark Cowlitz Farm Bureau was solicited at a board meeting. The majority of the attendees appeared surprised or disinterested with the topic. But the new president stated that he would be willing to use urine on his own crops. The group chose not to take a formal position on this topic.
Numerous attempts were made to get a statement from the FDA. No one reached was willing to make a statement or provide the correct contact for whom could provide such a statement.
To better under urine’s opportunities and constraints from a grower’s perspective, an email invitation to take an online survey was sent to over 130 independently owned farms in Oregon and Washington. Thirty-two farmers responded. An additional 41 surveys were completed at Oregon State University’s 2015 Small Farms Conference.
Small-medium sized farm were targeted, based on assumptions regarding these farms’ sustainability practices, vulnerability to volatile fertilizer pricing, and use of diverse fertility inputs.
The survey respondents’ farms ranged in size from less than one acre up to 320 acres, with the majority in the 10-30 acre range.
One intent of the survey was to better understand the relationship between nutrient selection and cost, soil health, NPK demand, and need for fast acting nitrogen fertilizer.
Regarding nutrient needs, the majority of the farmers rely on multiple inputs including cover crops, soil amendments, and fertilizer, with a greater reliance on cover crops and soil amendments.
For these farmers, soil health and crop productivity were greater drivers than cost in selecting fertilizers. But half of the farmers do find that fertilizer costs significantly impact their overall costs, and 34% of farmers see a fertilizer cost increase annually.
To understand if they often purchase a variety of fertilizers to meet different NPK needs, 53% of respondents’ crops vary minimally in NPK need but 40% do vary significantly.
Another intent of the survey was to see if certain characteristics of urine fertilizer would align with the crops’ needs. Sixty-eight (68%) percent of the farmers responded that they seasonally need a fast-acting nitrogen fertilizer and 16% said they always need it.
When asked about issues they would have with using urine, the number one concern was regarding pharmaceuticals. This was followed by consumer attitudes and allowance by the National Organics Board.
In response to the question regarding what would increase their likeliness to use urine, again, the top rated concern was acceptance by consumers followed by allowance by the National Organics Board.
There was a third question that addressed how much consumer attitudes affect one’s farming practice. Forty-nine percent (49%) said significantly, while 37% said minimally. Considering that 68% said they only sell direct, it is understandable that they would be sensitive to consumer views. This close relationship with their customer base was further emphasized by 66% responding that their customers know or care how the farmer fertilizes.
Regarding the logistics of using urine, 66% own equipment to distribute liquid fertilizer or use drip irrigation. This is helpful to know, considering 34% of them said it would be costly to switch to liquid distribution equipment.
Seventy-five percent (75%) said they would like more information or training on the best time and application of urine, either online or workshops.
When asked if urine, treated according to a standardized method, should be allowed as a fertilizer on organic crops, 64% said yes.
The National Organics Board does not allow the use of human waste on certified organic fields or crops. The PI was curious if farmers would consider urine differently from the general definition of human waste. To change the national organic standards would be very difficult but this response reveals a degree of receptivity to exclude urine from the definition. Of course, urine could still be used by many farmers who practice organic farming but forego certification.
Two Oregon based produce distributors were contacted to learn what their views would be towards produce fertilized with urine. Organically Grown Company’s position was “whether or not the company feels that urine is a great fertility tool, we cannot endorse its use until it is scientifically proven, without a doubt, that there is no risk associated with such practice. Even then, we are obligated to work within market expectations. Any controllable practice that adds even the slightest amount of risk will not be tolerated by wholesalers, customers and consumers, whether or not FSMA were to allow it.”
The Pacific Fruit Company, one of the largest produce distributors in the Northwest, stated that food safety is of utmost importance for everything that they do. As a company, they are very concerned about media response and potential backlash from their customer base.
Three Portland, Oregon based produce vendors were contacted. All revealed that they do not ask their farmers how the produce was fertilized.
The primary produce buyer with New Seasons, a Portland based grocery chain, stated that the company line would be “no comment.” Validation by the USDA would make a difference for him, but unless “there was a media blitz on NPR saying this was needed for the planet” he did not think their customers would go for it.
Portland Fruit West purchases produce from over 200 farms. The produce buyer is personally opposed to the idea of urine fertilized produce, stating that even if the ODA or USDA approved, it would not change his opinion.
The People’s Co-op produce buyer said that if the process was transparent and was within their buying guidelines, and was an accepted method by USDA and Oregon Tilth, then he would not have a problem with it. He thinks that most members would be supportive, though there could be some mixed views.
Concentrates NW, based in Oregon, has been an organic fertilizer specialist since 1938. The General Manager’s response, regarding concerns about the high sodium content in the urine, “Some conventional fertilizers are high in chemical salts, not necessarily sodium salt. Many organic/natural farmers in the Willamette Valley and Pacific Northwest are actually starting to use Redmond Salt (a natural trace mineral salt) as a soil amendment because our soils are often a tad low on sodium and trace minerals.” She also shared that options for fast-acting nitrogen organic fertilizer are costly.
Public opinion was captured via focus groups and surveys.
Three focus groups were conducted on June 28, 2014, at the Ambridge Event Center in Portland. According to DHM Consulting, this would be a sufficient number to gauge public opinion.
John Horvick, Vice President of DHM Consulting, was the facilitator. Consumer Opinion Services recruited the participants. The request was for a diverse mix of ages, income, and education, with a political leaning toward moderate/conservative. The only information the participants received was that the topic would be about natural fertilizer.
The participants’ ages ranged from 23-60+, gender was evenly split and the majority was Caucasian. Political affiliation, education, and income were fairly diverse.
Format and Results
Each question was first posed as a written exercise to be completed independently, followed by a group discussion. This structure was intended to reveal personal perspectives prior to influence from the others in the group.
The following results include some verbal comments and quotes but are primarily based on the written responses.
Focus Groups Summary
Overall, the consensus was that urine fertilizer was sensible and acceptable. Many could understand the benefits urine could provide and appreciated a natural alternative to synthetic fertilizers. The fact that the participants self-identified as moderate or conservative reveals that urine based fertilizers could be appreciated by mainstream consumers.
Throughout the discussions, participants mentioned the need for more information and assurance that urine, and crops fertilized with it, would be safe. While some had heard of urine being used for other applications, none had heard of its use in agriculture. The newness of the idea sparked interesting comments as some considered what affect the urine might have.
The majority of participants expressed positive attitudes towards the concept of urine as fertilizer and there was a good degree of acceptance. There was no difference in attitudes, in terms of gender, education, or income.
Solidify Acceptance Through Processing the Urine
While supportive in their responses, participants did state that in order to feel confident in the safety of this product, the urine should be processed through some type of formal, controlled and regulated treatment. Extending the distance from source to end product could further its acceptance and using an “industrial” process could increase the comfort level.
While many knew urine is primarily sterile when it exits the body, they commented on the need to ensure it was “safe” or “clean.” When pressed on what these terms mean to the participants, comments centered on assumptions that there are contaminants in the urine that would need to be removed in order for it to be a safe product.
The use of urine as fertilizer was a very foreign concept to many who had never heard of anything like this before. Several commented that they needed more information and education before making a fully informed opinion.
Ick Factor/Cultural Taboo
The challenge to cultural taboos created some uneasiness. Exploration of effective strategies to overcome emotional responses included branding, messengers, and statements relating to the use of the product.
Sourcing the fertilizer product from another person raised concerns about reliance on that person’s lifestyle, health, diet, use of medication, if his/her body contains toxins, or is carrying a disease.
Some were concerned that urine based fertilizer would impact the quality, taste, and cost of food.
- Use by others, whether it’s the past 1,000 years of agriculture or the current use by “developed” countries, provided a degree of legitimacy.
- Participants had little-to-no knowledge about how the produce they buy was fertilized.
- There seemed to be even less knowledge about the fertilizer products available in stores, such as Home Depot, and the safety of these products. Yet, the majority of participants have purchased these products.
- Some support was driven by the preference for fossil fuels to be reserved for other uses than manufacturing fertilizer.
In a written exercise, participants were asked to rate the credibility of the following organizations or businesses, which may speak about the safety of using human urine as a fertilizer.
The results show that the majority of participants found public agencies to be credible sources of information. Those who felt that public agencies were less than “very credible” expressed concerns that they are influenced by corporate interest.
Those who selected farmers as being highly credible did so because they felt that farmers are dependent on crop success. One participant said, “If you want to find out about plants, ask the person whose life revolves around them.”
Perceived as the least trustworthy were commercial stores – vendors, garden, and grocery stores, due to assumptions that decisions are profit driven. (“They have opinions but not necessarily facts.”) This might counter typical consumer practices. Many in the group have purchased Miracle-Gro, not based on reports, studies, or validation by any public agency but because it’s on the shelf, it has been sold for many years, and they have had success from using it. Many also commented that it must be safe because its being sold, and, therefore, it must be regulated.
A consumer survey was offered online at www.thegivebackproject.com/your-opinion/survey-consumers/. The survey was also conducted in person, at farmers markets, community fairs, and events in the greater Portland region.
The responses from the consumer survey align with the written responses focus group members were asked to complete individually. Below is a comparison of the results for the most critical question asked of all participants.
The consumer survey also asked a question that was included in the grower survey, “Should urine, if it were treated according to a standardized method, be allowed as a fertilizer on organic crops?” Eighty percent (80%) said yes, 13% said no, and 7% had no response.
Education and Outreach
To increase awareness and understanding, a number of educational tools were produced.
- The educational website can be found at www.thegivebackproject.com. It offers extensive information on the benefits of urine based fertilizer, application techniques, and additional resources.
- A short educational animation explaining the basics of nutrient cycling was developed and can be viewed on the homepage of the website.
- An informational brochure on the “Why & How of Fertilizing with Urine” was produced and distributed at presentations and tabling events.
- A PowerPoint presentation was produced, introducing the basics of urine based fertilizer, the results of the field tests, and consumer engagement. It is also available as a pdf.
Dancing Roots Farm and Rockwood Urban Farm hosted field days. Due to the time of day, and likely the time of year, attendance was quite minimal.
The PowerPoint was also presented at Zenger Farm and to the Cully Urban Farm Collective, both in Portland.
Nicole Cousino tabled at Oregon State University’s 2015 Small Farm Conference.
Take Root Magazine published a short article by Nicole Cousino on the topic of urine fertilizer, in the Spring 2015 issue.
Education and Outreach Outcomes
Areas needing additional study
There has been little research conducted on the use of drip irrigation to distribute urine. For smaller farms that use this irrigation method, this could be a preferred method for multiple fertilizer applications with minimal labor. The PI is seeking farms to partner with on testing this method for distribution.