The Asian people have recycled humanure for thousands of years. The Chinese have used humanure agriculturally since the Shang Dynasty, 3,000-4,000 years ago. Why haven't we westerners? The Asian cultures, namely Chinese, Korean, Japanese and others, evolved to understand human excrement as a natural resource rather than a waste material. Where we had human waste, they had night soil. We produced waste and pollution; they produced soil nutrients and food. It's clear that Asians have been more advanced than the western world in this regard. And they should be, since they've been working on developing sustainable agriculture for four thousand years on the same land. For four thousand years these people have worked the same land with little or no chemical fertilizers and, in many cases, have produced greater crop yields than western farmers, who are quickly destroying the soils of their own countries through depletion and erosion.
A fact largely ignored by people in western agriculture is that agricultural land must produce a greater output over time. The human population is constantly increasing; available agricultural land is not. Therefore, our farming practices should leave us with land more fertile with each passing year. However, we are doing just the opposite.
Back in 1938, the U.S. Department of Agriculture came to the alarming conclusion that a full 61% of the total area under crops in the U.S. at that time had already been completely or partly destroyed, or had lost most of its fertility.2 Nothing to worry about? We have artificial fertilizers, tractors and oil to keep it all going. True, U.S. agriculture is now heavily dependent upon fossil fuel resources. However, in 1993, we were importing about half our oil from foreign sources, and it's estimated that the U.S. will be out of domestic oil reserves by 2020.3 A heavy dependence on foreign oil for our food production seems unwise at best, and probably just plain foolish, especially when we're producing soil nutrients every day in the form of organic refuse and throwing those nutrients "away" by burying them in landfills or incinerating them.
Why aren't we following the Asian example of agronutrient recycling? It's certainly not for a lack of information. Dr. F. H. King wrote an interesting book, published in 1910 titled Farmers of Forty Centuries.4 Dr. King (D.Sc.) was a former chief of the Division of Soil Management of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who traveled through Japan, Korea and China in the early 1900s as an agricultural visitor. He was interested in finding out how people could farm the same fields for millennia without destroying their fertility. He states:
"One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries long and well nigh universal conservation and utilization of all [humanure] in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food. To understand this evolution it must be recognized that mineral fertilizers so extensively employed in modern Western agriculture have been a physical impossibility to all people alike until within very recent years. With this fact must be associated the very long unbroken life of these nations and the vast numbers their farmers have been compelled to feed.
When we reflect upon the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century's service, and upon the enormous quantity of mineral fertilizers which are being applied annually to them in order to secure paying yields, it becomes evident that the time is here when profound consideration should be given to the practices the Mongolian race has maintained through many centuries, which permit it to be said of China that one-sixth of an acre of good land is ample for the maintenance of one person, and which are feeding an average of three people per acre of farm land in the three southernmost islands of Japan.
[Western humanity] is the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has ever endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted; and his besom of destruction in the uncontrolled hands of a generation has swept into the sea soil fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate, and yet this fertility is the substratum of all that is living." 5
According to King's research, the average daily excreta of the adult human weighs in at 40 ounces. Multiplied by 250 million, a rough estimate of the U.S. population in the late 20th century, Americans each year produced 1,448,575,000 pounds of nitrogen, 456,250,000 pounds of potassium, and 193,900,000 pounds of phosphorous. Almost all of it was discarded into the environment as a waste material or a pollutant, or as Dr. King puts it, "poured into the seas, lakes or rivers and into the underground waters."
According to King, "The International Concession of the city of Shanghai, in 1908, sold to a Chinese contractor the privilege of entering residences and public places early in the morning of each day and removing the night soil, receiving therefor more than $31,000 gold, for 78,000 tons of [humanure]. All of this we not only throw away but expend much larger sums in doing so."
In case you didn't catch that, the contractor paid $31,000 gold for the humanure, referred to as "night soil" and incorrectly as "waste" by Dr. King. People don't pay to buy waste, they pay money for things of value.
Furthermore, using Dr. King's figures, the U.S. population produced approximately 228,125,000,000 pounds of fecal material annually in the late 20th century, or 228 billion pounds of Gross National Product.
Admittedly, the spreading of raw human excrement on fields, as is done in Asia, will never become culturally acceptable in the United States, and rightly so. The agricultural use of raw night soil produces an assault on the sense of smell, and provides a route of transmission for various human disease organisms. Americans who have traveled abroad and witnessed the use of raw human excrement in agricultural applications have largely been repulsed by the experience. That repulsion has instilled in many Americans an intransigent bias against, and even a fear of the use of humanure for soil enrichment. However, few Americans have witnessed the composting of humanure as a preliminary step in its recycling. Proper thermophilic composting converts humanure into a pleasant smelling material devoid of human pathogens.
Although the agricultural use of raw human excrement will never become a common practice in the U.S., the use of composted human refuse, including humanure, food refuse and other organic municipal refuse such as leaves, can and should become a widespread and culturally encouraged practice. The act of composting humanure instead of using it raw will set Americans apart from Asians in regard to the recycling of human excrements, for we too will have to constructively deal with all of our organic byproducts eventually. We can put it off, but not forever. As it stands now at least, many of the Asians are recycling much of their organic discards. We're not.
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