Deeptech/Agritech/Analysis/

Meet the European startups revolutionising fertiliser

Either ur-ine or ur-out… will farmers give pee a chance? 

By Adam Green and Eanna Kelly

Founders Pierre Huguier and Michael Roes. Source: Toopi

The race to replace chemical fertilisers could yet see farmers turning to an unlikely replacement: urine. 

A combination of record costs and future regulatory threats to conventional fertiliser has seen organic or novel substitutes emerge as a growing market. Now one startup from southern France is betting on human waste to save the day. 

“Human urine will be the most demanded and used raw material for agriculture in 2050,” Toopi founder Michael Roes predicts in Sifted’s new report on agritech, available exclusively to Pro subscribers. 

Alternatives to chemical fertilisers have already attracted gigantic sums, particularly in the US, where companies like Pivot Bio and Anuvia Plant Nutrients are based. Their approach involves converting microbes that naturally occur in crop soils, and food industry byproducts, into organic substitutes.  

Toopi, meanwhile, is betting on urine because it contains a surprisingly rich mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, making it potentially a big source of agricultural nutrients. 

But to be effective on the fields, you need high levels of concentration, in turn necessitating heavy energy use, undermining its overall environmental profile. So far, there has been an absence of viable business models to collect and deploy it.

A large pee-value?

The company has raised around $5m to develop a technique that uses urine as a growth medium to cultivate microorganisms — bacteria, yeast and fungi — which in turn make microbial products for agriculture. 

Toopi is currently sourcing the yellow stuff from venues like stadiums, live events and schools: “All big buildings that receive a lot of visitors who pee,” says Roes. The idea is catching on: the European Space Agency, for example, is to put 80 urine-diverting toilets into its Paris headquarters, which will begin operating later this year. 

Toopi then sells an industrial urine-based fermentation platform via agri cooperatives. The company has gathered around 3m litres of pee so far, and is aiming for 50m litres a year just from France. The country’s consumers were the most likely in one survey to eat food fertilised by urine, with the Portuguese the most squeamish among Europeans. 

Yes wee can — but what about alternatives?

Toopi isn’t the only startup developing alternative fertilisers. Investment in natural fertilisers — a small part of the $171bn global fertiliser market — is growing in Europe, thanks to sanctions against Russia, where a lot of the industrially produced fertiliser is made.

Amy Yoder, CEO of Anuvia Plant Nutrients, speaking in London last week, said that her company’s product, which converts human waste and food industry byproducts into fertiliser, was not only healthier for the soil, but didn’t sacrifice quality or yield. “It’s a given that your crop quality is going to be the same [after using our product]; quite frankly if it isn’t, then farmers are not going to be utilising you as a tool,” she said. 

Doing away with chemical fertilisers entirely is a pipe dream for now, though. “[They’re] responsible for feeding 50% of the world population,” says Mónica Andrés Enríquez, executive VP for Europe at Yara, the largest fertiliser company in Europe. 

And while organic fertilisers will be better for the environment, soil quality and weather are just two factors that will continue to bedevil the farmer. “In some European countries, you can talk about [producing] 14 tonnes [of wheat or maize] per hectare, while in the eastern part of Europe, you talk about six or seven tonnes,” says Isabel Vercauteren, CEO and cofounder of Ghent-based Aphea.Bio, a maker of microbial products with the potential to improve soil nutrients, with no pollution to the environment. 

Pay and spray

For green fertiliser to truly take off in Europe, governments will need to provide “incentives to [push] farmers to do the right thing”, according to Claes Johansson, sustainability director of Lantmännen, an agri co-op in Sweden made up of nearly 20k farmers. This is already happening in parts of Europe. To help with farm costs in the UK, for example, ministers have announced cash incentives aimed at farmers who move away from gas-dependent fertilisers. 

Sri Lanka showed the world the lesson of moving too quickly. In 2021, its government imposed an abrupt ban on synthetic fertilisers so it could speed the transition to organic farming. The policy was rolled back after several months of protests by farmers and food inflation. 

Éanna Kelly is a contributing editor at Sifted. He tweets from @EannaKelly1. Adam Green is a science and technology writer and editor based in London. He tweets from @AdamPenWord

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