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Poo-pooing productivity

Posted 23/07/2013 by sevans

It couldn’t have been better timed. A press release on Monday 22 July warned that society needs to accept ‘an inevitable role for human excrement in the food chain’, and to re-think its attitudes to GM technology. A tall order, one might think, in the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal and other health food scares.

Also on the same day, the UK government chose to announce its Agricultural Technologies Strategy, a plan to invest a total of £160m to transform the country’s agricultural sector - with no mention of poo or GM.

Among the areas earmarked for investment, the government has announced £90m over the next five years to establish a number of ‘Centres of Agricultural Innovation’ to support advances in sustainable intensification. A further £10m will be directed at supporting the transfer of new technologies and products to developing countries, while the remaining £60m is allocated to a new Agri-tech ‘catalyst’ designed to help innovations get off the ground more quickly during ‘proof of concept’ development.

With a burgeoning world population and declining productivity growth already a threat to food security, there isn’t much time to lose. Analysis by University of Sheffield researchers has found that the UK’s available soil has just 100 seasons of residual nutrients. A sustainable farming future has to be more reliant on organic farming that relies heavily on the breakdown of organic matter to replace nutrients taken from the soil by previous crops, the scientists warn.

People produce an average of 1.5t of faeces and urine each year, enough to provide 20kg of elemental PNK fertiliser to grow 200kg of cereal, according to the Project Sunshine release. Human waste is already deployed in some developing countries, driven by water shortages and escalating fertiliser costs, while proper composting eliminates any potential health risks.

‘In a time of rapid environmental change we need new ways to intensify sustainable production and protect food crops,’ says the University of Sheffield’s Duncan Cameron. ‘This isn’t optional. Like it or not, the sh*t is going to hit the fan.’

Unless, that is, we can find something more useful to do with it.

Cath O’Driscoll, Deputy Editor

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