Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In The Dark With Both Hands

Composting, the theme of the last two Archdruid Report posts, has turned out to be unusually timely as the current winter draws toward its end. The prospects for this year’s wheat crop, a topic of discussion until recently relegated to Grange halls and local newspapers in small western towns, have recently become the focus of news stories and punditry in business media worldwide.

There’s good reason for this unexpected shift of attention. A sequence of jarring upward leaps in the commodity markets have brought wheat prices up to levels never before seen in modern times, with no visible end in sight. Other grains and, for that matter, a wide range of other agricultural commodities, have posted vertiginous price hikes of their own. Unlike so many of the booms and busts that have enlivened recent economic history, the current surge in grain prices isn’t insulated from the real economy of goods and services, and has already begun to play out in rising food costs worldwide.

The boom in grain prices is the product of many factors. At the top of the list belongs the simple if awkward fact that the world’s capacity to produce grain in recent years has failed to keep up with increasing demand. Despite all the handwaving of cornucopian economists, it turns out, the world really is finite, and rising demand for grain-fed livestock in newly prosperous India and China turned out to be the proverbial one straw too many for the world’s agricultural system. Add to that the impact of climate instability on grain harvests, the activities of speculators, and the bizarre spectacle of the current biofuel boom, in which large portions of the industrial world are attempting to cope with rising petroleum prices by pouring their food supply into their gas tanks, and you have a fine recipe for chaos in the grain market.

Still, there’s another factor at work, one that will likely play a major role in the agricultural history of the next century or so. The fertilizers that make modern industrial agriculture work derive almost entirely from nonrenewable sources. Nitrate and ammonia fertilizers are manufactured from natural gas; phosphates come from rock phosphate, and potassium from mineral potash deposits – and global supplies of the first two of these, at least, are beginning to run short.

It’s been argued that this isn’t a problem, because improvements in technology make it possible to extract economically useful amounts of minerals from ever more dilute source materials. In theory, this is quite true. In practice, though, a crucial ingredient usually gets left out of the mix: the more dilute the source material, the more energy needs to be invested per unit of refined product. During the last two decades of the 20th century, when energy prices reached their lowest levels in human history, nobody needed to pay attention to the energy side of the equation, and this fostered a climate of thought in which futurists could picture future industrial societies that met all their material needs by extracting dissolved minerals from seawater.

As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, though, this sort of thinking makes bad science fiction and worse propaganda. As energy supplies dwindle, using ever increasing among energy to extract ever smaller fractions of minerals from the ground quickly becomes a losing bet. At the same time, without significant inputs of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals, it becomes impossible to maintain soil fertility at levels high enough to matter. Unless the world can find some other abundant, concentrated source of plant nutrients in time to matter, it may not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that large parts of the world may face a Hobson’s choice between starving to death and freezing in the dark.

This is where the perspectives of the last few Archdruid Report posts become relevant, because such an abundant, concentrated source of plant nutrients already exists. The methods needed to obtain the raw material and process it into high-grade fertilizer are mature technologies, readily available and thoroughly tested. The only reason the source in question is not already being exploited on a large scale in the industrial world is that most people nowadays don’t seem to be able to distinguish it from a hole in the ground.

We are talking, of course, about human feces – or, as one book on the subject has usefully labeled it, “humanure.” The average human being in the industrial world produces between 2.5 and 3 pounds of fecal matter a day, along with about a third of a gallon of urine. Over one year, that works out to approximately half a ton of feces and a hundred gallons of urine per person; multiply this by the 300 million residents of the United States, and then factor in the equally massive waste streams generated by domestic animals and livestock, and you may get some sense of the scale of the resource that we are, quite literally, flushing down the toilet.

The technology that converts this resource into fertilizer happens to be the one we’ve been examining in the last few posts. Composting uses natural biological processes to break down fecal material and other wastes, converting them into a concentrated, odorless source of plant nutrients. In the process, composting kills pathogenic bacteria by sheer biological competition – a compost pile is a fiercely Darwinian environment in which organisms bred in the sheltered setting of a human body’s insides don’t last long. Study after study has shown that fecal matter, after it has been competently composted, contains no more human pathogens than ordinary soil.

So why haven’t we been able to get our fertilizer together on this issue? What keeps composted humanure from being an obvious resource to help replace dwindling inorganic sources of plant nutrients? Part of the reason reaches deep into the crawlspaces of the industrial world’s collective imagination. People who object to composting humanure quite often cite concerns about pathogens or odors, but it rarely takes more than a short discussion to get down to the level of a five-year-old clenching his eyes shut and squealing “Ewww, ick!”

This invites satire, but beneath it lies a set of very widespread attitudes far less appealing than simple human waste. C.S. Lewis pointed out quite a while ago in The Abolition of Man, and with far more power in his fantasy novel That Hideous Strength, that a great many modern attitudes have their source in what might as well be called biophobia – a pathological fear and hatred of the realities of biological life, coupled with an obsessive fascination with the sterile, the mechanical and the lifeless.

Biophobia guides the creation of human environments so biologically sterile that, according to recent research, many currently widespread illnesses may be caused by understimulated immune systems; it also inspires the absurd fantasies of so-called “transhumanists” who look forward to the day when they can put their personalities into robots and do away with biological existence altogether. (Back in the Sixties, Ira Levin crafted a smart horror novel, The Stepford Wives, about the replacement of human beings by robots programmed with imitations of their personalities, but not even he seems to have imagined that people might set out to do that to themselves.) The same attitude, I’m convinced, drives the horror many people feel when faced with the prospect of eating food fertilized with composted humanure.

The same aversion to biological realities, it may be, has shaped another factor that makes the commonsense use of human waste as plant food difficult for many people to contemplate. The economic thinking that guides the industrial world has long been stuck in a linear rut, imposing patterns of one-way flow on a universe that consistently moves in circles. Our economists sort out the tangled exchanges, multiple roles, and mixed motives of real market economies into neat flowcharts that move matter from suppliers to producers, to distributors, and then to consumers, before vanishing into thin air.

Food systems built on the same pattern take nutrients from natural deposits, put them into soil, haul the resulting crops into a baroque system of manufacturing and distribution before they get to people, and then dump the resulting waste into the world’s fresh water supply. That sort of straight-line pattern is the way most people in the industrial world think; it’s a measure of how pervasive such thinking is that following nature’s patterns, and cycling “waste” back around to become a resource, seems so unthinkable to most people.

Now it deserves to be said that there are valid reasons why composting, with or without humanure, would be difficult to apply to the kind of industrial farming that produces most bulk agricultural commodities in the western world these days. The infrastructure necessary to collect 150 million tons of humanure a year, plus an amount of compostable animal manure that may well be larger still, and convert it en masse into fertilizer for Iowa corn and North Dakota winter wheat simply doesn’t exist; it would be extremely expensive to construct, and resources put into that project would have to be diverted from many other pressing needs.

Still, the kind of industrial farming we have nowadays is a creation of the age of cheap abundant energy. As fossil fuels deplete, that kind of farming will become less and less economically viable, until it finally ceases altogether. It’s quite true, as some writers on peak oil have argued recently, that the current agricultural economy won’t simply revert to the agriculture of an earlier time; that’s not how change happens in the real world of economics – or ecology. What will happen instead, of course, is that new patterns will evolve in the interstices of the old.

In ecological terms, these new patterns will fill available niches the old system no longer occupies; in economic terms, they will use resources and fill marketable needs outside the scope of existing economic activity. Arguably, these patterns have already started taking shape, in the form of the thriving economy of small organic farms and truck gardens that sprang up around most cities in the western half of North America beginning in the 1970s. As I hope to show in next week’s post, this new farming economy offers a glimpse at the agriculture of the future – if, that is, we can get our heads out of our fertilizer supply long enough to notice.


FARfetched said...

Butt do you think the readers give a squat about crappy puns? Scat! I say, Scat!


Milorganite is the only large-scale humanure processing operation I'm aware of, at least in the US. Milwaukee had a long series of Socialist city governments from 1900-1960, so chances are it was during that period that they started selling their treated sewage. Dang sight smarter than dumping it in the river, IMO.

One issue with manure composting, human or otherwise, we touched on in last week's comments: it produces methane. OTOH, large-scale processing plants could capture enough methane to supply its own energy needs (heat helps speed up the process, to a point). I think in your ecotechnic age, that communities of any size will find the methane by-product of their composting operation nearly as valuable as the fertilizer itself, able to generate heat or even electricity.

yooper said...

Hello John, another excellent article. My wife and I, are going to try the compost pile. We'll still have to haul the plastics to the dump, but at a savings of $250 a year at present garbage pick-up prices, it's worth it for the black dirt alone.

We will have a problem with bears, but we do anyway, suppose they can help me with the turning. Oh, btw, a bar of Irish Spring or other deodorant soap, placed near the pile could keep some critters away.

It would be easy for me to do the humanure thing, as I do live quite a distance from my nearest neighbor. However, how do you suggest the eight million in New York, go about this? Think the goverment would give the people a tax break for a composit toliet?

Gee, maybe I'll put the garden over the septic field, the grass is always greener there! I realize, the time may be coming soon where it would be economically feasible to grow your own. In the meantime I'll be learning how to do it. It would be a shame to have what I have and not put it to use...

I'm not sure if I agree with thoughts presented over at the drum, about the future of industrail farming. Like you, I don't think this would last long, as it wouldn't be worth the energy put into it. Of course, this would eventually become a sink, when populace cannot afford the product. Naturally, we both know what that means. There is a tremendous amount of "assumption" going on over there. Best to do what we can on our own. What do I have to loose?

Thanks, yooper

Jens said...

I'm all for a humanure system...
But - and please correct me if I'm misinformed - I understand that much of modern industrial-world fecal matter is unusable for composting due to hormones and other substances in medication (such as birth control pills), that pass through the digestive tract and can persist through composting. Is this so? If it's so, how could humanure be employed on a large- or even middle-scale?

bryant said...

“many modern attitudes have their source in what might as well be called biophobia – a pathological fear and hatred of the realities of biological life”

As someone who gardens with humanure and encounters the alarm some guests feel when they realize that their dinner grew in soil nourished by my composted excrement, I wonder if biophobia really explains their reaction.

Cows are careful to avoid eating grass close to fresh manure. I think this is instinctive behavior which evolved in response to exposure to parasites and disease-causing organisms in feces. It does not seem impossible that similar instincts evolved in humans. I know that correctly composted humanure is safe, but intentional composting is a learned behavior and I think many people respond to it subconsciously.

That said, I think that you correctly surmise that the return to biologically-derived fertilizers will require agriculture to change significantly.

Loveandlight said...

Another argument for recycling our own waste is that our current system of sewage processing is very complex and energy-intensive and probably won't survive deindustrialization. And fresh water could very well become a resource we dare not waste by pooping in it.

Bernd Ohm said...

@bryant: Many wild animals, e.g. lynx or badgers, actually bury their feces and try to "keep the lair clean", so a certain revulsion regarding your own excrements is certainly quite natural. They're waste and may contain harmful stuff, after all. On the other hand, there is just a small number of badgers and lynx in the woods, so that's no problem, and the feces quickly become new ressources. The real problem is the "unnaturally" high human population density.

@Jens: quite correct, human feces are full of chemicals these days, so it's now illegal to use them as fertilizers e.g. in Switzerland or, partly, in Germany. Much of the stuff is simply burned.

Robin said...

I grew up in a part of the world where cow manure was burned by many as a fuel and also used as fertilizer. It was not considered a waste.

A few posts ago some commentators mentioned the the problems with large ranches raising beef cattle in California, and when they were booted out of CA they created the same problem elsewhere. I saw it as a mismanagement of resources.
And ofcourse as you know, night soil has an extensive history:
And with regard to the opinions that industrial agriculture will continue for substantially long periods because a return to former ways is not possible, it is true that there cannot be an exact regression to those ways. However, in an ecotechnic society the ways will be different and sustainable.

RAS said...

People don't just have a 'biopathic' reaction to humanure; I know several people (at least half a dozen) who absolutely refuse to eat anything grown organically because manure is often used as a fertilizer!

And here's an interesting anecdote: Last fall several farmers northwest of here started using composted humanure from some plant up north as a fertilizer. They did it for some time with no one noticing, but when word got out about what they were using, people starting complaining about the smell!

Panidaho said...

And fresh water could very well become a resource we dare not waste by pooping in it.

Exactly. We're going to experiment with using some fresh urine for fertilizer this year. Urine is the easiest human waste to deal with - it's sterile and if you dilute it well, pretty much odorless when fresh. Since more water is used in a typical house flushing away urine than poop (as people urinate much more often during a typical day than they defecate) it's actually the biggest water waster of the two. Even cutting that water waste down a little would probably help.

I'm planning to set up bucket stations next to our larger plants (tomatoes for instance) and use those for "fertigation" stations by filling the buckets (drilled with small holes in the bottom so the water leaks out over a long period of time) with water each morning and then adding some fresh urine. With our planned 15-20 caged tomato plants and our many fruit trees and shrubs, I should be able to rotate the fertigation buckets each day so each plant or group of plants won't end up with too much nitrogen over the course of the season. Since I've never done this before, it'll be an interesting experiment to find out just how effective it is and how much the system can handle without creating some kind of mess or reducing the fruiting on the plants from excess nitrogen. I may also try using some of the same dilution on the compost pile now and then. I plan to watch things closely and take a lot of notes.

Very good article, JMG, btw. Thanks for bringing this up.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

An article entitled Wasteland: A journey through the American cloaca by Frederick Kaufman appeared in the February 2008 issue of Harper's magazine. (Available online only to subscribers, unfortunately.)

In it, Kaufman touches on how the current effluent system is straining (another pun—sorry) under the current amount of waste and explores the industrial processes for producing fertilizer from it. It's a very interesting read.

riverbird said...

JMG, do you practice humanure composting at your own home?

Panidaho said...

Thought this was topical...

Urine is "a good natural nitrogen containing substance and probably could be easily utilized" as a fertilizer, agreed Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center, New York City. "There's nothing wrong with using it," Tierno said. He added that there is little risk of contamination by urine-borne pathogens, because they would be in competition with microorganisms found in the soil and would "probably lose the battle."

As a result of the findings, the team concluded that urine produced by one person over a year would be enough to grow 160 cabbages -- that's 64 kilograms (141 pounds) more cabbage than could be grown in a similar plot fertilized with commercial fertilizer.

LInk: Human Urine Safe, Productive Fertilizer from the Washington Post, no less.

gigglingwizard said...

I was happy to discover recently that my own city, Columbus, Ohio, composts biosolids from the municipal sewage and makes the resultant product available for sale. Not only is it available, but several companies in the area, including one large dealer in topsoil and mulch, have become distributors, even repackaging it as their own products.

About half my income this year will be coming from selling produce, chicken, and eggs at local farmers markets. I'm thrilled at discovering this resource (at $16 per cubic yard, $12 per yard if mixed with sand and ash that our clayey soils desperately need), but I'm reluctant to advertise it precisely because of the phobic reaction you mention.

The other half of my income is coming largely from landscaping/lawn maintenance, and I've been bringing grass clippings, weeds, and leaves home to compost--but not until first drying it out and using it as chicken bedding. The compost bin is built out of old pallets.

One small perk of the financial woes that Peak Oil is brining is that, as people are forced to become more frugal, they'll start using the resources at hand more wisely, re-using anything they can get their hands on.

fernwise said...

If you think that folks have issues with humanure, think of the mental obsticles to the next necessary step - Soylent Green Fertilizer!

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, well, crap. ;-) My guess is that methane from manure will be a useful product of the composting process down the road -- but we'll see.

Yooper, I'll be wading into the debate about postindustrial farming next week -- stay tuned.

Jens, this is one of the reasons why humanure composting on the home scale is probably the best bet -- those people likely to take it up sooner rather than later are also those people less likely to be filling their bodies (and their waste products) with hormones and toxic medicines.

Bryant, you may be right, but then people have been using manure as fertilizer for thousands of years, so fecal avoidance is obviously a reaction that can be worked around.

Loveandlight, very true.

Bernd, thanks for the details.

Robin, I was thinking of those vast heaps of cow manure when I wrote -- what a huge resource going to waste! As for reversibility, stay tuned for next week's post.

Ras, very funny!

Teresa, New Society has quite a decent book out -- Liquid Gold -- on the use of urine as a fertilizer. It's excellent stuff -- very high in nitrogen and phosphorus.

Mauricio, thanks for the heads up -- I'll find a copy.

Riverbird, I don't own my own home, and have never had a landlord who would tolerate a composting toilet. One of the first things I plan on doing once housing prices finish crashing, and my wife and I get a place of our own, is to get rid of the flush toilet and put in a composting model. (The solar hot water heater comes right after that.)

Galen, good to hear.

Fernwise, we all become fertilizer sooner or later. It's common Druid practice to be cremated and have the ashes buried under the roots of a newly planted tree.

The Naked Mechanic said...

Spotted this link after reading your post and figure that an enterprising Druid could build one of these out of natural materials :-)
"...A one-cubic-meter digester, primed with cow dung to provide bacteria, can convert the waste generated by a four-person family into enough gas to cook all its meals and provide sludge for fertilizer...

Panidaho said...

People don't just have a 'biopathic' reaction to humanure; I know several people (at least half a dozen) who absolutely refuse to eat anything grown organically because manure is often used as a fertilizer!

Oh, I've had that happen before. We had some friends who would never eat anything at our house because we tilled composted rabbit manure into our garden soil. They wouldn't even eat any tomatoes or beans or cucumbers, despite the fact that these items were grown on trellises and such and never even *touched* the soil - they just couldn't deal with the whole composted manure thing at all. They were apparently fine with consuming food grown in and covered with toxic pesticides and corrosive chemicals, though. Oh, well. :-(

Panidaho said...

JMG said:
Teresa, New Society has quite a decent book out -- Liquid Gold -- on the use of urine as a fertilizer. It's excellent stuff -- very high in nitrogen and phosphorus.

Thanks for the heads up on that! I'm going to go look for it now.

Yes, I've been doing some reading on it tonight, and apparently urine is pretty close to the ideal fertilizer - and it's sterile and free for the using. Makes me wonder why it took me so long to figure this out!

bryant said...

gigglingwizard: Have a care with municipal sewege products. Because the city waste stream includes waste water from business and industry, heavy metals and potentially dangerous organic compounds are often present. We stopped using Milorganite for landscape clients when some third-party analyses showed elevated mercury, zinc and chromium. MMSD (Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District) puts out some numbers and they look ok...but remember that metals tend to accumulate. MMSD's numbers are in mg/kg and EPA's limits are usually listed in ppm or ppb; 1 mg/kg = 1 ppm.

The lesson here seems to be that trying to "do compost" on an industrial scale generates industrial-type problems...exactly what I think JMG is suggesting we avoid

John Michael Greer said...

Mechanic, many thanks! I hadn't seen this sort of very small-scale digester before; good to know that the technology is so scalable.

Teresa, glad the info's of use!

Bryant, exactly -- you get today's gold star. One of the great advantages to scalable technologies is that they can be operated on a scale small enough to avoid disasters.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Regarding human urine as a fertilizer, see Sharon Astyk's humorous (but accurate) post on that very topic from last June.

And speaking from experience, it works—especially with a compost pile that's nitrogen-deficient. If you're going to put it on a garden, just remember to dilute it 9 to 1 with water. Preferably rainwater.

Bytesmiths said...

My favourite tome on the subject is The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins.

Jenkins is generous to make his entire book available for reading on-line, but I'm hoping people will support his work by buying a hardcopy if they find the on-line version interesting. His style is very humorous, and yet the information is comprehensive. So get this book, some sawdust, and a 20 litre bucket, and start closing the nutrient cycle!

Some prejudices come from unexpected sources: organic certification precludes the use of humanure! Outrageous! That's one reason we have not applied for certification, and I've told IOPA that.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...








marielar said...


Maine has quite a few sewage sludge composting facilities. As mentionned in another post, the big issue with sewage sludge is the buildup of heavy metals over time in soils. Th good thing with composting toilet, is by-passing the whole sewage business and energy consuming transportation. The rule of thumb is that it is not economically and energetically efficient to transport organic wet manure over more than 10 km. That is why, even on many farms, the fields nearby the farm buildings are typically much higher in nutrients than the remote ones. An interesting variant on this theme was the British flock folding sheep system: the sheep were pastured in far away pastures during the day and brought back on arable land during the night, enriching it with their manure.

All fresh fecal substances present the same problem of potential pathogens, that is why composting is so useful. But if the fresh manure is ploughed in followed six months before harvesting, then there is no problem.
Unfortunately, the nitrogen will be gone but not the other nutrients. At a farm scale, I am not sure how practical it would be to separate feces from the urine. Typically, both end up in the animal bedding.

It seems to me that we are back where we started at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Way back, Marx had concerns on how much phosphorus was lost through sewage of London and the European countries were fighting over guano.

IMO, if we could plug the phosphorus, potassium and micros huge leaks in the agroecosystems, the small uvavoidable losses could be filled with occasional additions of seaweeds. As it stands, the demand is too high to meet with seaweeds.

For folks with an interest in history, here is a very good article on soil fertility and how it was tackled.

On biodigesters, the best, cheapest, small scale design I saw was in "Permaculture Activist" last year. I dont think the article is published online but here another link to the project:

The biggest problem right now for producing grain locally at the farm scale is that there is no affordable intermediary technology between large scale machinery and "all by hand". In North America, in the 60s, all manufactures stopped producing small self-propelled and pull type combines. There is still some equipments available, mostly hidden and rusting behind farms, but its hard to find. Same with grain processing, as so many mills closed their doors. But, this being said, it should not stop adventurous gardeners to get their hands at growing their own grains and cereals. There is quite a bunch of heritage seed catalogs which now offer a good selection and quite a few companies which sell manual mills for household. That being said, I tend to believe that some specialization at the local scale is highly desirable over complete self-sufficiency. The most limiting resource is time. Nobody can do it all.

Betsy aka 'the goat yoda' said...

Preach it brother! You are the first person of your persuasion that I have actually seen actively addressing these issues. The pagans around our area are still caught up in city life and don't really have a clue about what to do if it all comes down- one can read all the metaphysical books in the universe and still not find the honest discussion you are making. And I am having almost the very same discussion with another friend of mine who lives in my region.

A couple of friends are attempting to put this sort of info out to the community and getting met with blank stares- folks just tune it out and hide their heads in the sand. These are the ones who will want to be fed and not work for it.

The folks of all persuasions who do get it have 'biggest compost pile' and 'largest weed in the garden' contests while living simply and fully, and having fun doing it. I'd rather be with my goats anyway....

John Michael Greer said...

Mauricio, thanks for the link and the info.

Bytesmiths, I'm a fan of Jenkins' book also -- and am embarrassed by the prissy attitude of the organics industry. They'll grow out of it.

Rhisiart, siw mae! Your post came through fragmented -- I'll see if I can get the raw data, fix it, and repost it; if not, please repost once you've got a keyboard that works.

Marie, all good points. Yes, it's a matter of time -- how much we can do in the very limited time we have left before the next round of crises lands on us.

Betsy, thanks for the encouragement! There are other Druids busy with the same work I'm doing, but we're a very small denomination just now, and a tolerably quiet one as well.

Kris said...

Mike Ruppert posted this link for an online handbook, "Humanure" by Joseph Jenkins, informative and humorous, of course!

RudolfC said...

Excellent article (and comments)! One thing that bothers me is this "one pound of meat requires eight pounds of grain" statement I read everywhere. One pound of meat requires NO grain - pasture animals, unsurprisingly, much prefer to live on grass, and were traditionally raised on land that was marginal or uselees for raising plants.