The human body produces five hundred liters of urine and fifty liters of feces per year. This is equivalent to about half a kilogram of phosphorus. One day’s urine from an adult is sufficient to fertilize a square meter of cropped area for each cropping period.
Phosphorus is not actually scarce. It is constantly produced and excreted in the feces of living beings. The modern agrarian system has actually created an overflow of phosphorus in natural habitats that leads to the eutrophication of waterscapes, the destruction of natural environments and the emergence of new habitats and ecologies. We are all part of global and local phosphate cycles that we co-produce and that we are part of. Arno Rosemarin’s text shows how rifts in the global phosphorus flows and in local sanitation cycles have to be closed, in order to create a better chance that global food security can be achieved. While his research concentrates on closing the gaps in the phosphorus cycles and calls for a more efficient use of natural fertilizers like human excreta, Scott Knowles study shows, how excessive use of phosphate-based chemical fertilizer causes severe kidney disease in the bodies of farm workers. Zachary Caple’s text introduces supermarkets as a key technology for converting the lithosphere into human bodies and growing populations. How do mines, plantation fields, and human eaters come together in a scalable technospheric apparatus?
A closer look is necessary to understand how sanitation and agriculture can be linked. The concept of ecological sanitation seeks to develop sanitation systems for human excreta that close the nutrient and water cycles. For example, nutrient recycling from human waste can be achieved by using soil composting and urine-diverting dry toilets. Such systems are particularly appropriate in rural and peri-urban areas of developing countries where farmers cannot afford chemical fertilizers. Ecological sanitation has the potential to be a useful alternative to generate fertilizer in subsistence farming.
The average human produces five hundred liters of urine and fifty liters of feces per year. This is equivalent to about 5.5 kg of NPK (4 kg of nitrogen, 1 kg of potassium and 0.5 kg of phosphorus) per capita per year varying from region to region depending on food intake. The rule of thumb is that one day’s urine from an adult is sufficient to fertilize a square meter of cropped area for each cropping period. is means one year of urine from a person can support agriculture over an area of about three hundred to four hundred square meters. If used mainly as a phosphorus fertilizer (i.e., requiring a supplement of nitrogen), one person’s urine over a year can support even larger areas of between five hundred and six hundred square meters.
Calculations show that sub-Saharan Africa could become self-sufficient in fertilizer supply if it were to adopt productive or ecological sanitation practices. This would provide the necessary supply of nutrients to smallholder farmers and provide food security and new opportunities for income. In trials in seven villages in Niger, Dagerskog and Bonzi (2010) found that ten persons (the average family size is nine) annually excrete in their urine the equivalent of about fifty kilogram of urea in purchased chemical fertilizer. In their feces and the non-nitrogen part of the urine they excrete about fifty kilogram of prepared NPK fertilizer worth about eighty USD.
Plots using urine as a fertilizer produced comparable or ten to twenty per cent higher yields of sorghum and millet compared with plots receiving chemical fertilizer at the same nitrogen application rate. In trials with tomato, onion, cabbage, lettuce and pepper, urine, which contains potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen, acted as a complete fertilizer producing consistently twenty to fourty-five percent higher yields in comparison to urea alone. The objective in this IFAD project was to encourage farmers to use urine instead of the expensive synthetic urea.
The rule of thumb from this project was that one person excretes in urine and feces per year on the average 2.8 kilogram of nitrogen, 0.4 kilogram of phosphorus and 1.3 kilogram of potassium. This is sufficient to fertilize a cereal or vegetable crop covering three hundred square meters. To avoid loss of ammonia from stored urine, sealed containers are used. Responding to the increasing interest in recycling of phosphorus and other nutrients from sanitation systems, WHO, UNEP, and FAO developed guidelines for the safe reuse of human excreta in agriculture.
Struvite is now being produced using urine as the sole source of phosphorus in villages of Nepal. The phosphorus loop for rural populations can therefore be closed without too much change in the make-up of the present systems. For urban systems the challenge is much larger since the waste systems have not been designed with agricultural reuse in mind. For those cities with sewage treatment systems, the sludge is a significant source of phosphorus. The organic fraction of municipal solid waste is also a significant source of phosphorus since this constitutes between fifty and seventy percent of the waste produced.
In order to make this jump to sustainable or productive sanitation requires a paradigm shift in the way we design and use sanitation and solid waste systems. Mixing reduces the quality of the various products. So this calls for source separation of urine, feces and grey-water, containment of the various fractions, treatment (e.g., through composting of the feces fraction), and then reuse of the nutrients in agriculture of various kinds. In urban settings where sludge can be collected from pit latrines, septic tanks and sewage treatment plants, considerable amounts of phosphorus can be collected and made available for agricultural reuse.
For EU-27, it is estimated that one-third of the phosphorus used as fertilizer can be obtained from the sludge in sewage treatment plants (based on data from an EU assessment by Milieu Ltd. et al., 2009). If the manure from domestic farm animals is included, then the entire fertilizer requirement can be covered through recycled sources. In Sweden, with improved fertilizer and manure practices, municipal sludge could, within a decade, replace fifty to sixty-five percent of the P originating from chemical fertilizer.
Bennett et al. (2001) reviewed the literature on the global phosphorus cycle and concluded that phosphorus applied as fertilizer accumulates in the soil and eventually becomes eroded creating nutrient loading to receiving water bodies. Cordell et al. (2009) also estimated the global flows of phosphorus, showing that of the fifteen megatons of phosphorus that is used each year in fertilizer, only three megatons end up being consumed in the form of prepared food.
Significant losses to the soil and erosion amount to approximately eight megatons. Domestic farm animals produce about fifteen megatons of phosphorus in the form of manure and about half of this is added back to arable lands to grow crops. The bulk of the phosphorus in the manure (12 Mt) is from grazing natural vegetation and only about 2.5 megatons enter from feed. The grazers therefore are an important source of phosphorus for agriculture and, as mineral sources become more depleted and more expensive, the role of grazers, especially on rain-fed, natural grasslands, may become even more important also as a source of food protein.
The largest losses are from agriculture, which uses and loses the most phosphorus. Reforms are necessary to reduce the erosion losses and optimize the amounts used as fertilizer. Losses from manure handling also need to be reduced. Waste and sanitation systems are presently not designed for reuse and recycling. Source separation of organic fractions is necessary both in food processing and preparation. Nutrient capture from sludge and wastewater systems plus onsite collection of solid waste and latrine fractions will become more and more economically attractive as the price of fertilizer increases.
Poor countries will be able to close the loop on phosphorus faster than the rich countries – since they are less locked into the large mixed waste and sanitation systems that developed countries have adopted. These, unfortunately were designed to get rid of waste and not to refine, recycle and reuse it as a valuable, readily available resource. The present tendency is to continue building and expanding these mixed waste systems as the world becomes more and more urbanized (now over fifty percent of the global population).
Urban agriculture in an ideal world would be receiving nutrients from the cities it supports. But there is a long way to go before such systems are put into place. At the present time, over seven hundred million people in fifty countries consume food from twenty million hectar of land irrigated with untreated sewage. This practice will increase as cities become larger and the need to produce food increases. If such systems had been designed from the start for agricultural reuse, the spreading of pathogens and parasites could have been reduced.
The above discourse identifies gaps in policies and governance that may already be jeopardizing the food security of several nations. There is an acute need for a directive and governance capacity to dictate policy on the sustainable management and use of phosphorus. A global convention and implementation commission is required in order to secure the limited supply of commercially viable phosphorus and to begin using it in a much more conservative manner than up to now. The commission would full the need for an independent monitoring capacity in order to increase transparency about the extent of viable phosphorus reserves. The commission would also promote more efficient agricultural practices, both in the use of chemical fertilizer (e.g., through better fertilizer placement and reduced applications) and in the use and storage of manure in order to minimize losses. Implementation in developing countries could be catalyzed through FAO and IFAD extension interventions.
For centuries, animal and human excreta have been added to farmland to supply nutrients for growing crops. Farmers in most parts of the world still consider animal manure a valuable soil amendment. To recover nutrients, including the phosphorus in human excreta, a wide range of technologies are being developed, ranging from low-cost, small-scale systems to expensive high-technology ones.
‘Ecological sanitation’ recovery systems for human excreta are designed to close nutrient and water cycles.
For example, nutrient recycling from human waste can be achieved using urine-diverting dry toilets. Such on-site systems are particularly appropriate in rural and peri-urban areas, where households are not connected to sewerage or farmers do not have access to—or cannot afford—chemical fertilizers. Trials in villages in Niger by Dagerskog and Bonzi (2010) found that an average rural family of nine persons excreted the equivalent of chemical fertilizer worth about eighty dollars per year. The urine component produced comparable or ten to twenty percent higher yields of sorghum and millet, compared to the same amount of nutrients applied as chemical fertilizer.
During the past decade, researchers have started to focus on reducing phosphorus losses by developing ways to improve phosphorus uptake
by animals. In particular, intensive pig rearing produces massive volumes of phosphorus-rich manure. Monogastric animals such as the pig are unable to break down phytate, the major form of phosphorus in their feed. Phosphorus is therefore added to their diet as an inorganic supplement, but much of it is excreted due to low uptake in the gut. Scientists at the University of Guelph in Canada have developed a genetically engineered Enviropig able to digest phytate.
This decreases the need for an inorganic phosphorus supplement. Other research groups are developing low-phytate crops or focusing on the production of phytase, an enzyme that helps animals to digest phytate.
Kidney disease is killing sugarcane workers in Central America at alarming rates. A 2013 article in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) estimates that 20,000 men have died in an epidemic referred to as Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT), or sometimes as Mesoamerican nephropathy (MeN). Sugarcane workers mostly, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Mexico are dying of renal failure, but without the normal epidemiological profile. In 2009 kidney disease was the second leading cause of death for men in El Salvador according to the AJPH, and CKDnT mortality in affected areas is five times higher than national rates in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The normal causes of kidney disease—hypertension and diabetes—are not present among these workers, and they often don’t know they are seriously ill until the disease has progressed beyond hope of recovery.
The lack of kidney disease registries has made it difficult for public health officials to say exactly when this epidemic emerged. The first paper documenting CKDnT in Latin America was published in 2002, and the Pan American Health Organization did not acknowledge it as a serious health issue until 2013. The suffering and premature death of victims, the trauma to agricultural communities, and the overwhelming cost to overburdened health systems define a disaster that is enormous and still growing.
But, the story does not end in Central America. Northern Sri Lankan rice farmers are also dying at a rapidly increasing rate from CKDnT. It is estimated that 400,000 suffer from kidney disease, with 20,000 dying annually. The scale of the disaster in Sri Lanka and the recent publication of research linking CKDnT in Sri Lanka to agricultural fertilizers and herbicides moved President (and former health minister) Maithripala Sirisena to take action. In May of this year he announced that the country would ban the import and use of glyphosate, the world’s most widely-used agricultural herbicide.
Glyphosate (a compound of glycine and phosphonic acid) often goes by the trade name “Roundup,” and was first produced by the Monsanto Company (USA) in 1974. Monsanto retains its own phosphorus mine in Soda Springs, Idaho in order to provide the raw materials for Roundup. Though Monsanto remains a major producer, Chinese companies today manufacture the largest percentage of glyphosate worldwide, and other manufacturers include BASF, Dow, and DuPont. Though it has now lost the exclusivity of its patent, Monsanto has retained competitiveness through the marketing of its genetically-modified “Roundup Ready” seed stocks. In a feat of chemical wizardry, Monsanto has made it possible for farmers to now grow plants that are resistant to a remarkably powerful herbicide. The crops survive, the weeds around them die.
The theory of glyphosate poisoning runs basically as follows: glyphosate enters the soil and water and bonds to heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic. After use, glyphosate by-products make their way into water supplies, and eventually into bodies, with the heavy kidney-function-disrupting metals included. Another theory holds that glyphosate is only part of the problem, and that glyphosate toxicity is augmented by the rapid expansion of phosphorus fertilizer use.
The rapid and recent intensity of phosphorus fertilizer application in Sri Lanka means more workers are exposed to products that are themselves contaminated with heavy metals. So, be it from fertilizer or from herbicide—there is a strong case being made that phosphorus sits at the root of the problem. Research is it an early stage, and multi-causal explanations are appealing. For example, chemical exposure combined with dehydration from difficult agricultural work may be a tough one-two punch for sufferers.
Field of Impact #1: Government
Sri Lanka’s policy response to the CKDnT epidemic came shortly after the announcement in March of this year by the World Health Organization (WHO) that glyphosate is “probably” also a carcinogen, a result of a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The Sri Lanka policy action comes in the middle of debate in the EU over banning glyphosate (still controversial), a move initiated by Denmark in 2003. The Netherlands banned the herbicide in 2014 and France has done so this year. Brazil, Germany, and El Salvador may not be far behind. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has never listed Roundup as a carcinogen, but will now undertake a new study in light of the WHO report.
Field of Impact #2: Industry
Perhaps the manufacturers of glyphosate will get ahead of the crisis: the Chinese government, for example, has pledged about one hundred million dollars to build a specialized hospital for treating CKDnT in Sri Lanka (Chinese companies exports vast quantities of phosphorus fertilizer to Sri Lanka). Monsanto has taken a more combative path, seeking to undermine the scientific validity of the CKDnT- cancer linkage. Monsanto immediately demanded a retraction of the 2015 WHO study, complaining that it is “biased and contradicts regulatory findings that the ingredient, glyphosate, is safe when used as labeled.” The phosphorus industry has also strongly denounced what it sees as unfounded connections among sick farmers, phosphorus fertilizer, and glyphosate.
A skeletal critique of phosphorus fertilizers and herbicides may grow flesh if and when the EU takes action, or when (if?) the U.S. EPA changes its mind about the “wizardry” of Monsanto. The so-called climate change “debate” in the United States has shown us the dangers of “waiting for scientific consensus” as a tactic of industrial producers who wish to keep sales high amid mounting evidence of harm. Still, the uncertainties of public health etiology do not necessarily inhibit the formation of public opinion against a perceived pollutant—and from this flows the “Politics of Phosphorus,” or at least a possibility for politics.
Field of Impact #3: Public Health Science
“Global phosphorus” has effects at different scales—and one of these scales is that of the body of the individual farm worker. But can one sick worker, or even a few hundred thousand sick workers build a case against Monsanto? Discussion of the Technosphere invites us to think about the flow of material commodities like phosphorus—not only to study the “life story” of industrial materials, but also to locate the “apparatus” created when different actors (human and nonhuman) are drawn into a relationship.
The slow disaster of phosphorus depletion through mining is compounded by the expanding and unregulated flow of phosphorus waste. Eutrophication is one result—and now we see the possibility of another grim phosphorus transformation—as an agent of heavy metal accumulation in the bodies of farmers. Cautious policymakers are already showing that they are not willing to wait for one hundred percent certainty on glyphosate-CKDnT-cancer linkages before taking action. Whether or not farmers in developing countries dying of kidney disease will force a new Silent Spring moment remains to be seen. In the meantime, the global demand for rice and sugar is increasing all the time, and so is the demand for phosphorus and its many manufactured formats.
Economies of scale organize our lives. The ability to “scale up” modes of production, to make more and more stuff, is a hallmark of the capitalist world-system. Scalability structures our factories and plantations, but it also shapes our political ideologies and every-day culture. What would it mean to investigate the networked cultural spaces of the technosphere through the lens of scalability?
In my fieldwork in Florida, I study how the phosphate fertilizer industry has reached scalable proportions and transformed Florida ecosystems in the process. Florida is a convenient place to study phosphorus scalability: it has one of the world’s most important phosphate mines and it has a politically powerful agricultural sector that consumes phosphate fertilizers on an industrial scale. It also has the essential third component: lots and lots of human eaters.
How do phosphate mines, plantation fields, and human eaters come together in a scalable technospheric apparatus? One key technology for converting the lithosphere into human bodies and growing populations is so ordinary it fails to spark our curiosity: the supermarket. The prefix super- is a clue that scalability is at work. Row upon row of identical can goods and uniform heaps of blemish-free produce are signatures of scalable design. In the United States, the supermarket is configured for the automobile—an icon of mass production. Almost always embedded in shopping centers with spacious parking lots, the supermarket is a mixture of suburban life and an apparatus of sprawl.
Bone Valley is a phosphate-rich geological region in Central Florida. Located within its boundaries is the sprawling city of Lakeland and the headquarters of Publix, the seventh largest supermarket chain in the U.S.
In 1957, with great public spectacle, Publix founder George Jenkins unveiled the Southgate Shopping Center in Lakeland. The Southgate Shopping Center represented the state-of-the-art in American merchandising. Sixteen stores, including a Woolworth’s, a “Beauteria,” and, of course, a Publix supermarket, were grouped together under a 67-ton red parabola—an architectural flourish that has become a local landmark.
In developing Southgate, Jenkins helped pioneer a new trend in the supermarket industry: building and owning whole shopping centers, instead of just occupying them.
During my fieldwork in Florida, I did not study supermarkets or the Publix chain, but I did do my shop- ping at the Southgate Publix. As I shopped—a cartoon of the anthropogenic phosphorus cycle etched in my mind—I contemplated the strange layering of phosphate geology the store embodied: below ground—an unmined layer of the Bone Valley formation; above ground—Bone Valley phosphate rock masquerading as food and human flesh.
In the 1990 Tim Burton in Edward Scissorhands, the differently dexterous Frankenstein, Edward, has turned up in Anywhere USA. It’s the 1980s (or is it the 1950s?) and Edward is shaking things up in a pastel-colored subdivision with avant-garde topiary and hairdos. At the midpoint of the movie, the camera fixes on the Southgate Shopping Center’s parabolic arc.
, at the peak of his popularity, with Joyce, the vampish redhead, is giving Edward a tour of the vacant retail space where she hopes to launch a salon. Joyce’s business dreams are anything but innocent: she has turned Edward’s physical difference into a sexual fetish. Her seduction of Edward in the Lakeland mall ends in comedic failure, but it also marks a turning point in the story as Edward shifts from being a celebrated curio to a reviled other.
Edward Scissorhands offers a critical allegory of Anywhere USA and its culture of scalability. In Anywhere USA, the nuclear family nourishes; progress is synonymous with growth; and cultural difference is alternately appropriated or targeted for eradication.
The Southgate plaza sits at the center of Burton’s critical myth as an icon of American modernity; but Southgate also exists as a real piece of infrastructure in the sprawling city of Lakeland. In Florida, Publix supermarkets are a strategic technology of suburban expansion: city and county planners, real estate developers, and Publix representatives work separately and together to ensure that roads, sewer, and supermarkets are available to the ever-expanding periphery.
By the 1970s Lakeland had expanded well beyond its 1957 boundaries and encountered a limit to growth: unreclaimed phosphate mines. Old phosphate lands with their irregular pits and spoil piles, industrial debris, and precarious settling ponds are ruins of scalability. These lands require significant capital to reclaim. Real estate developers and the City of Lakeland petitioned the state to action.
In 1975, the State of Florida passed statutes 211.32 and 370.021. These statutes mandated phosphate fertilizer companies to reclaim all new mines to “beneficial use.” They also established the Non-mandatory Reclamation Fund, financed by a severance tax on phosphate, that ordered reclamation monies to owners of pre-1975 mines. With mandatory reclamation and the Non-mandatory Reclamation Fund in place, a limit to scalable suburban construction was overcome. Phosphate pits became lakefront property. This is the American Dream in ruins, literally.
In March 2014, I joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ protest outside the flagship Publix of the Southgate Shopping Center. Farm workers and their allies chanted and waved tomato-shaped protest signs condemning Publix for failing to participate in the coalition’s Fair Food Program. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker-led human rights organization that advocates social justice and fair labor practices in U.S. agriculture. Immokalee is the largest tomato-producing region in Florida. In the last decade, the Immokalee tomato industry’s image has been sullied by numerous prosecuted cases of contemporary slavery.
Exploitable labor, like phosphate fertilizers, is a critical feature of scalable agriculture. The Immokalee farm workers—deprived of shade, safe working conditions, and a livable wage—formed the CIW and mounted sophisticated political campaigns against big retailers that leverage low prices from growers. The Fair Food Program requires participating retailers to charge an extra penny per pound for tomatoes, resulting in millions of dollars in premiums that raise an average farm worker’s income from 11,000 USD to 16,000 USD a year.
CIW technologies of protests—its candlelight vigils, its colorful signs and banners, its network of activists using social media—have, in some cases, shifted cultures of scalability and the technosphere’s distribution of wealth. Walmart, McDonalds, and Subway have all signed onto the Fair Food Program. Publix, however, remains committed to a de facto policy of scalability without responsibility.