Millions of Farmers in China, India and Vietnam Use Human Feces To Harvest Grains and Vegetables
You may want to take a closer look at the country of origin on that product label the next time you go grocery shopping. Facing water shortages and escalating fertilizer costs, farmers in developing countries are using raw sewage to irrigate and fertilize almost 50 million acres of grains and vegetables which are then exported all around the world.
A generally fecal-phobic society reacts to the thought with a mix of snickering interest and fearful aversion, all dispatched in a single flush.
However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), ten percent of the world's population relies on such foods. Nearly 200 million farmers in China, India, Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America utilize human waste to grow food.
"There is a large potential for wastewater agriculture to both help and hurt great numbers of urban consumers," said Liqa Raschid-Sally, who led the study published by the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and released week at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden.
While the practice carries serious health risks for many, those dangers are weighed against the social and economic gains for poor urban farmers and consumers who need affordable food, the study authors say.
The report focused on poor urban areas, where farms in or near cities supply relatively inexpensive food. Most of these operations draw irrigation water from local rivers or lakes. Unlike developed cities, however, these areas lack advanced water-treatment facilities, and rivers effectively become sewers.
When this water is used for agricultural irrigation, farmers risk absorbing disease-causing bacteria, as do consumers who eat the produce raw and unwashed. Nearly 2.2 million people die each year because of diarrhea-related diseases, including cholera, according to WHO statistics. More than 80 percent of those cases can be attributed to contact with contaminated water and a lack of proper sanitation. But Pay Drechsel, an IWMI environmental scientist, argues that the social and economic benefits of using untreated human waste to grow food outweigh the health risks.
Using human feces for food production is not soley confined to poor urban areas. Japanese scientist Mitsuyuki Ikeda has developed a “burger” made from soya, steak sauce essence, and protein extracted from human feces.
Ikeda, a scientist at the Environmental Assessment Center in Okayama, sought to further the field of alternative proteins by recycling a form of protein-rich waste : sewage mud.
“Sewage mud” is exactly what you think it is -- poop. Ikeda’s process begins by extracting protein and lipids from the “mud.” The lipids are then combined with a reaction enhancer, then whipped into “meat” in an exploder. Ikeda then makes the poop more savory, by adding soya and steak sauce.
Irrigation is the primary agricultural use of human waste in the developing world. But frequently untreated human feces harvested from latrines is delivered to farms and spread as fertilizer. In most cases, the excrement is used on cereal or grain crops.
With fertilizer prices jumping nearly 50 percent per metric ton over the last year in some places, human waste is an attractive alternative.
"Overly strict standards often fail," James Bartram, a WHO water-health expert, said. "We need to accept that across much of the planet, waste with little or no treatment will be applied to agriculture for good reason." According to IWMI's report, few developing countries have official guidelines for the use of wastewater for farming. But the fact that authorities are even acknowledging that wastewater agriculture exists is progress, the report says.
Natasha Longo has a master's degree in nutrition and is a certified fitness and nutritional counselor. She has consulted on public health policy and procurement in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany.