Rethinking Urine as Agricultural Fertilizer: Log Lunch with Abe Noe-Hayes

On December 2nd, Abe Noe-Hayes of the Rich Earth Institute called the Log Lunch community to consider an important question: what is one of the most nutrient rich, easily created, and easily wasted substances in the world? With a talk entitled “Rethinking Urine: A Solution for Climate, Water, and Agriculture,” he didn’t leave much room for guessing. Our bodies, he explained, create enough fertilizer to grow a loaf of bread every single day. Through creating technology that will allow individuals and farms to better utilize urine, while simultaneously working to normalize the practice of “peecycling,” Noe-Hayes and the Rich Earth Institute hope to promote water conservation, prevent pollution, and reduce both environmental and economic costs for farmers.
Noting that conventional wastewater treatment flush nutrients into water supplies, often creating harmful algae blooms and neurotoxins, Noe-Hayes describes the use of urine as fertilizer as a way to complete the food nutrient cycle, allowing the nutrients we consume to, in turn, fertilize the crops we might consume in the future. Through creating a circular, non-linear nutrient cycle, he explained that we would bypass much of the pollution created by both synthetic fertilizers and wastewater treatment facilities, contributing to the creation of a more climate resilient future. The Rich Earth Institute created the Urine Nutrient Reclamation Project in order to create a circular nutrient cycle. The project is comprised of a smattering of early adopters who are seeking inexpensive fertilizer and interested in reducing their environmental impact.Noe-Hayes continued to discuss the technology that the Institute has created in order to collect and distribute urine, explaining the differences between community-scale and personal-scale efforts. The Institute has created pee collection technology that can be used by individuals in their own homes, and these individuals can either directly use urine as fertilizer, or can have it pumped out and redistributed to farms. He continued to describe the field studies that the Institute has completed, which demonstrate that urine is as effective as synthetic fertilizer. He also addressed a frequent question, of whether urine fertilization impacts food taste, by explaining that food is reported as tasting better after being grown with urine as fertilizer, because it becomes more nutrient-rich.
Noe-Hayes by reading a powerful quote from Buckminster Fuller on resource collection: “Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.” Through emphasizing the transformative potential of urine reclamation in a straightforward, accessible way, Noe-Hayes allowed the audience to begin to rethink one of our most common resources.
The Log Lunch team presented a delicious meal of vegetable malabar, beet raita, buttery garlic naan, roasted honey nut squash, and milk barfi with coconut and cardamom, with beets, potatoes, and squash from Mighty Food Farms.

Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.