This article was featured in the EEAC (Environmental Education Advisory Council) of NY newsletter Spring 2011 issue (page 1 and 7):
The EEAC Newsletter Spring 2011 issue (PDF file).
Correction: page 7, paragraph 3, "The former involves ..., and the latter is the putrefaction, ..." 'former' and 'latter' are reversed. The published article in the EEAC Newsletter is an edited version of the article below.
Microorganisms and the Environment
As kids, we used the term germs or cooties, whether or not we realized that microorganisms existed, we reacted with disgust, ridiculing other kids of having it, imagined or not, and just, "Ew!"
On a recent tour of the BioBus (biobus.org), the mobile science lab uses research-grade microscopes to show visiting kids the microscopic world, and this, to me, provides an important point of awakening for them. It's also a direction towards understanding how critical microbes are in the environment and our overall health: of individuals, our ecosystems, and the planet.
We still have much to learn about microorganisms. We may only know about a fraction of the microbes that exist on earth. However, the understanding of the microbial world has begun to accelerate in many fields from basic research to medical applications. For example, we are learning more and more of how they exist just about everywhere. They have been found in the depth of the arctic and antarctic ice, by volcanic vents in the deep ocean, in battery acid, in the coolant water of nuclear reactors, and they were recently shown to survive the cold, harsh vacuum of space after a rock with microorganisms was attached to the outside of the International Space Station for a year and a half. Even in our bodies, though we have about a trillion human cells, we have, at least, ten times many more microbes.
Microbes were here first. Every other life form, including us, evolved with them, not separate from them.
We are starting to realize how life, all life, may not be possible at all without microorganisms. Research is showing them to be more elemental to life than, for example, our cells. There are findings indicating how they can influence our physiological development and well-being. They may actually not be the cause of diseases, but rather they are reacting to environmental changes exacerbating our afflictions. For example, E. coli exists naturally in us and are beneficial in a healthy body: their secretions kill pathogens and they produce vitamin K. When their environmental conditions change, they may react by producing toxins. This indicates that perhaps there's no such thing as a "bad microbe," but rather bad reactive behaviors, aside from the super bugs or the particularly virulent strains of E. coli. And this may not be a certainty.
All bacteria is said to be able to exchange genetic material between one another acquiring or sharing different characteristics. Microorganisms have been found to be able to not only communicate with each other, but also with the body that it's in (studies were done in mice), for instance, through the colon by producing the same kind of chemical signals (dopamine, serotonin) that the brain uses. Doctors had thought that our lungs were a sterile environment, and only recently has it been discovered that there are certain microorganisms living there. We still don't know if they have a function or not in the health of the lungs. And microbes behind the left knee are different from the ones behind the right knee, and there are microbes different in women than in men.
In nature, microorganisms are intricately involved in the maintenance of a healthy environment and the carrying on of the cycle of life. Plants need microbes to break down organic matter from dead plants and animals and make the nutrients available and in a useful, absorbable form. Microbes also help in soil structure and water retention through the buildup of humus. In fact, the healthier the microbial life in the soil, the healthier the plant. In the soil and the waters, microorganisms represent critical links throughout the food chain: they produce what other organisms need (nutrients) whether in the body of the organism or in the environment breaking down dead organisms, and they themselves are food for other organisms (eaten by plankton, worms, insects, and other microbes). It becomes important then to both care for the environment (direct care of the conditions) and to care for the microorganisms (direct care or usage of them, of the naturally existing ones).
The most hopeful, though, in our awakening to microorganisms in terms of the benefits to health and the environment, is the increase in interest in fermenting foods and beverages, and in fermenting food waste (which is what I do). Fermenting is becoming popular in pickling vegetables and roots, curdling different animal milk to make cheeses, fermenting yogurt, kefir, and brewing craft beers, ciders, wine and specialty drinks, such as, kombucha. This is hopeful because these kinds of fermentation are processes in sync with nature, and they could be done at home and in the classroom. They rely on microorganisms that have evolved over millions of years and are therefore balanced with nature. In other words, nature has worked out the kinks, and if done properly, most of the work are done by the microbes, efficiently and effectively, requiring little energy and little waste in resources.
Why is fermentation important to life and the environment?
There are two general ways in which organic matter is broken down: decomposition (aerobic and generally high temperature) and fermentation (anaerobic and generally normal temperature). Furthermore, for our purpose, we'll make a distinction between methane fermentation and lactic and alcohol (lactic/alcohol) fermentation. The methane fermentation may be best associated with what happens in landfills, and in a controlled fashion, in anaerobic digesters where methane (used for energy), ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other greenhouse gases are produced (even if in small amounts and depending on systems). The lactic/alcohol fermentation is best associated with the fermented foods and beverages we consume and where useful substances are produced: organic acids, amino acids, fatty acids, enzymes, vitamins, trace minerals, and among all of these are antioxidants. They are the essentials of life. Alcohol (beer, wine, spirits) is, of course, also produced in lactic/alcohol fermentation.
The lactic/alcohol fermentation can be viewed as the opposite of composting. The former involves naturally preserving organic matter (a benefit of fermenting foods), and the latter is the putrefaction or rotting of organic matter.
While organic matter, including food waste, have been recycled by various composting methods positively contributing to the environment especially if managed well, food waste, and organic matter in general, can be recycled by the lactic/alcohol fermentation method, as well. In other words, in the way we pickle foods, we can similarly pickle food waste.
We've been fermenting foods and beverages since ancient times. We are just fermenting food waste by using the same microorganisms. But instead of one or two of the species of microbes being the main actors, we combine a variety of lactic/alcohol fermentative microbes so there's a group of main actors working together. In this way, all food waste can then be fermented and recycled and not just fruits and vegetables.
How was this method discovered?
The fermenting of food waste may have been done for generations by some families. They may not have been fully aware that they've done so. Since some fruits and vegetables already contain the fermentative microorganisms, all it takes is an airtight container and sitting over the winter. For example, cabbage contains Lactobacillus plantarum which is why it can be easily fermented into sauerkraut.
However, having fruits and vegetables in an airtight container does not guarantee that the fermentation will succeed every time. This is where the combination of the different lactic/alcohol fermentative microbes takes on significance.
One of the ways in which microorganisms became clearly understood as being good and not just disease-causing, was through the serendipitous discovery by Teruo Higa, a professor of horticulture now at the Meio University in Japan.
In the 1960's, Higa suffered from the effects of using agricultural chemicals. For the next twenty years, he sought a safer alternative. After seeing how another professor successfully grew tangerines using a species of bacteria, he pursued microorganisms as a possible solution. Since he wanted to make sure that no one would get sick, he only looked at naturally existing, safe, nontoxic, and nonpathogenic microbes. As he investigated each microbe, he would dispose of them into a single vat of liquid. One time, he had to go away for a few weeks and since the liquid contained safe microbes, he simply poured it on a grassy area. When he came back he noticed that that patch of grass had grown lush compared to the surroundings. He asked around to make sure that none of the other professors or students had done anything there and after looking through his notes and further investigation, he realized that the key was the combination of the microbes.
By 1982, Higa had his solution and he named this specific combination of microbes as Effective Microorganisms or EM. In the beginning, the combination included some eighty different species. Over time, he continued to improve on that combination by observing and learning from the microbes themselves. Eventually, he ended up with a short list of the specific species that made it worked effectively. Today, that list includes about a dozen microbes from three types of microorganisms: lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and phototrophic bacteria.
The lactic acid bacteria include species that exist in pickled foods, sourdough, cheeses, yogurt and fermented sausages.
The yeast is the same species used in baking bread, pastries, and in brewing beer and wine.
The phototrophic bacteria are naturally found in soil, water, as well as, in worm castings; they are a natural detoxifier and can degrade odors; they stimulate the growth of actinomycetes which suppresses the growth of pathogenic fungi; they break down tough plant materials; and they benefit the growth of certain crops and fruits.
EM is a combination of these three types of microorganisms, and it is this combination that makes it possible to consistently ferment all food waste, including meats, dairy, oils, citruses, breads, bones, etc.
EM was first used to improve the soil, but it quickly expanded to other uses beyond farming.
In livestock, EM became a probiotic for the animals. In Japan and many other countries, EM is fed to cattle, pigs, chickens, etc., through their drinking water, mixed in their feed, and sprayed into their sheds. Because of the microbial change and probiotic effect, many of these farmers no longer needed to use expensive feeds and medicine (antibiotics). Not only is there significant odor reduction, since the gas (methane, ammonia, etc.) producing bacteria have been replaced by the beneficial microbes, but the runoff from the animal sheds has also cleaned up the waterways in which the effluent flowed.
The combination of microbes in EM seem to work differently than the individual species would alone. Their favorite food is not only the carbohydrates and sugars (when fermenting foods), but also substances we consider waste, pollutants and toxins where the phototrophic bacteria, a natural detoxifier, probably takes an active role. EM consists of dominant species. For example, even though L. acidophilus is not in EM, the more dominant L. casei in EM attracts and promotes the growth of L. acidophilus. The phototrophic bacteria may likewise attract and lead microbes in the environment to help it and the EM microbes to eat and convert the pollutants.
So now, EM microbes are not only good at making nutrients available from organic matter, but they are also good at converting waste into useful and beneficial substances.
The application to environmental remediation became a big area for EM. The biggest push for this came from individual volunteers, retired grandmothers, and community groups. The Seto Inland Sea in the central south part of Japan, is one example of successfully restoring the water environment. Different towns and villages along the shores worked together to apply EM. (Google search for "EM Seto Inland Sea" to see the full video, 36 min., uploaded by the EM Research Organization)
The Seto Inland Sea was remediated using a liquid fermented with EM, but in recent years, mud balls fermented with EM are being used to remediate polluted bodies of water. In Malaysia, volunteers, with the help of communities, local politicians and corporate sponsors, made over a million mud balls. They then held an event where children, parents and friends would throw the mud balls into designated polluted waterways. They called the event, "One Million Apologies to Mother Earth." After several months, they started to observe a reduction in sludge, the return of aquatic life, and improvements in water quality. There is an effort here in NYC to do some sort of mud ball water remediation event (for information on this, see MoScollective.net).
Recycling food waste by fermentation
The fermenting of organic waste (manure, post-harvest residue, food waste) with EM became a natural early on for some farmers. They have known for decades or centuries (no clear recorded history) about using fermented organic matter (the meaning of "bokashi" in Japanese) as a natural fertilizer. Instead of having to search and collect known fermentation starters, such as rich untouched soil from the mountains or a pristine forest moss covering, farmers can conveniently and easily ferment any organic waste using EM.
The process of recycling food waste with EM is so simple and safe that it has spread quickly to many households in Japan. It is a two-step process: 1st, pickle the food waste (about 2 weeks), and 2nd, use it as a soil additive. To pickle the food waste, an airtight container is used (many are the size that fits in the kitchen) and a fermentation starter is sprinkled onto the food waste every time it is added to the bucket. The fermentation starter in Japan is made of rice bran fermented with EM. Here in the U.S., we've been using wheat bran, but autumn leaves, wood shaving, saw dust, etc. can also be used. It is possible to use New York City's leaves inoculated with EM to ferment our food waste. Based on a 2005 sanitation study, the city collected more than enough leaves (20,000 tons - yearly changes by budget) to be able to ferment all of the food waste collected from residential households in one year (610,000 tons collected; 20,000 tons can ferment 660,000 tons).
After the food waste is pickled, there are different ways in which people use the resulting fermented food waste. In Japan, they mainly sandwich it between soil in pots and planters and either plant seeds right away, or wait two weeks before planting a seedling. It can also be buried in a trench, such as a farm or garden crop row. And it can also be fed to earthworms.
The process is fairly quick because during the pickling stage, the microorganisms are breaking down the fibers, lignin, cellulose, and chitin (crustacean's exoskeleton), as well as, making the nutrients in the food waste available for the plants. After two weeks, the fermented food waste is soft. Once exposed to the elements in the soil, it takes about a month for most of the food waste to disappear. If fed to earthworms, they have a much easier time going through the soft food waste, and since the fermentation involves lots and lots of microbes, which are food for the worms, earthworms multiply quickly. (See a short video clip of our earthworms in a community garden here in NYC that were fed fermented food waste: recyclefoodwaste.org)
About a quarter of all towns in Japan use a form of this method to recycle food waste at the municipal level. In some cases, the local government provides the buckets and fermentation starter to each home and the town or a business collects the fermenting food waste to then give, exchange, or sell to the local farmers. Many CSAs in Japan use their members' fermented food waste as part of their farm-household partnership.
There are many schools in Japan and in other countries where the children get involved in recycling their school's food waste. The children make the fermentation starters and sometimes make extra so that the school can sell them in a bake sale. This way parents and others in the community would be encouraged to recycle food waste at home. The children also separate their own food scraps during lunch, pickling them and then using them in the school's garden or local community garden landscape.
There are many countries and examples of actual applications of EM too numerous to go into here. The EM Research Organization has an English version website with information of applications in other countries and includes an online database with abstracts, reports, and articles.
Here in New York City, I've been volunteering to help community gardens who want to recycle food and yard waste, but for one reason or another have not been able to start or maintain a compost system. I have sort of positioned the pickling method of recycling food waste as an option to the usual composting methods. Since the fall of 2009, I've been a part of the compost-fermentation team at the El Sol Brillante community garden on 12th Street between Avenue A and B. The team consists of Susan Greenfield and Barbara Augsburger. They have allowed me to help them and become a part of their team, and we've developed quite a model there. In over a year, with mostly just the three of us, we have recycled over 2.5 tons (5,000 lbs) of food waste without the backbreaking effort of having to turn and manage compost piles. About a third of the food waste came from a cafe-restaurant across the street called Ciao For Now, and the other two-thirds from people bringing in their own food scraps. Our goal is to make our 12th St Model Project, which would include El Sol Brillante, Sauer Park (a children's playground), the Children's Garden, the elementary and high schools, and three restaurants nearby, become a community model using local resources (leaves, food waste) to grow our own food and provide an ongoing educational and cultural center.
As part of my volunteer efforts, I also teach, show and help to set up how to recycle food waste by the fermentation method. I do regular workshops with adults and children (see photo). I've been helping one Pre-K class and a special needs class (8 to 10-year olds) at a school near the garden to recycle their food waste, and I was recently a part of a project, in collaboration with Earth Matter (earthmatter.org), at the East Side Community High School where the students compared thermophilic compost with fermented food waste as a soil amendment.
Training others to be able to teach this and other EM methods has taken on greater importance. Just the awareness of microorganisms in general in nature is valuable to understand and better care for the environment. As the awareness expands, people and children are drawn to, instead of repulsed by, microorganisms and how they keep us alive and healthy and how we can use what nature has provided all along.
E. Shig Matsukawa (email@example.com), volunteer, 12th St Model Project, EM projects and school curriculum development
Bacteria 'R' Us, Valerie Brown, Miller-McCune, Dec. 2, 2010
Bacteria in the Gut May Influence Brain Development, ScienceDaily, Feb. 1, 2011
Earth Bacteria Survive a 553-Day Space Exposure on the Exterior of the ISS, Clay Dillow, Popsci Aug. 24, 2010
Exotic-looking microbes turn up in ancient Antarctic ice, NASA Science, Mar. 13, 1998
Microbes found miles beneath Greenland ice given new life, Steve Connor, The Independent, Jun. 15, 2009
NYC Department of Sanitation, Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling Organics in NYC's Residential Waste Stream
EM Research Organization, http://emrojapan.com/