This story appears in the December issue of VICE magazine.
According to research published this October, the world's suffering from an acute shortage of animal shit. In the paper, an international team of scientists shows how nature traditionally recycled and redistributed nutrients worldwide via the indiscriminate voiding of far-roaming animals. But because of the extinction of many species and the endangerment of many more, via human pressures, this global nutrient pump has been crippled, compromising the earth's fertility.
Although this theory makes intuitive sense to anyone who gardens with manure (or "night soil"), it's scientifically revolutionary. Researchers long believed animals played a negligible role in nutrient redistribution relative to processes like soil erosion. But the researchers suggest we neglected poop's powers because we started studying nutrient distribution in an animal-poor era. The study estimates that worldwide the shit-heavy system operates only at six percent of its peak capacity—less in some regions. It's hard to measure the exact toll that takes on global fertility levels. But it's likely significant, and it could worsen as animal populations continue to decline.
Aside from being scatologically fascinating, the research could aid conservationists, allowing them to quantify the value species carry in their ass nuggets. Especially as we run low on easily extractable nutrients, Chris Doughty, a lecturer at the University of Oxford and the study's lead author, believes it should become clear that the benefits of maintaining a pump that naturally and sustainably harvests and distributes scattered nutrients outweigh the costs of preservation. This could incentivize anything from creating new nature preserves to restoring cloned mammoths in Siberia (an actual plan), strengthening or restoring shit-smeared nutrient-chain links.
Yet even if we somehow restore the fecal wheel to its peak, Professor Joe Roman of the University of Vermont, another study coauthor, cautions that Earth would still face nutrient challenges.
"Our current use of phosphorous [a key element in future food security] is unsustainable," he said. "And while protecting large animals would go a long way… we still need to be careful with our use of this resource."
We now know that shit's worth more than jack shit. But it can't solve all our problems.