EM-1 - Effective Microorganisms

Evil Anaerobic Microbes or Ultimate Good Guys

EM-1, aka effective microorganisms, is a combination of anaerobic microbes that work to ferment or pickle rather than immediately decompose waste.

But wait a minute - aren't anaerobic microbes the bad guys when it comes to the garden.

Western Organic Garden Meets Asian Nature Farm

It's no surprise that Asians are comfortable with anaerobic microbes. After all the cornerstone of the asian diet, rice, is grown in flooded paddies in anaerobic conditions.

Westerners Believe

Most organic gardeners, including me until recently, subscribe to this conventional organic view of the world.

  • Aerobic Soils are good. They contain beneficial organisms and are resistant to diseases.
  • Anaerobic soils are bad. They contain putrefactive microorganisms and are susceptible to diseases.

Asian Nature Farmers Believe

The Japanese led Asian farmers see things a bit differently. They call their methods Nature Farming. They see three categories of soil life:

  • Aerobic soils are naturally high in oxygen. This means the soil organisms can burn through their food quickly resulting in a rapid loss of organic matter. While nutrients are made available to plants in this process significant amounts of nutrients are released as gases - CO2 and some NOx. - greenhouse gases.
  • Anaerobic soils which have high populations of putrefactive microbes are reductive and produce toxins. This group of organisms also produce methane and hydrogen sulfide gases, with the methane in particular being a tough greenhouse gas.
  • Anaerobic soils which have high populations of fermentative microbes, for example the effective microorganisms found in em, produce sugars, alcohol and nutrients which remain in the soil as food. A big bonus is that greenhouse gas production is minimal.

What Microbes are in EM-1

EM-1® was developed by Dr. Teruo Higa, a professor at the College of Agriculture, University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa, Japan. Higa was concerned from both a health and money perspective about the ever increasing amounts and numbers of chemicals being used on gardens and farms.

In the mid 1960's microorganisms were being studied round the world for various applications. Dr. Higa decided to study microbial combinations. All the organisms he put together were non-pathogenic, facultative anaerobic microbes.

Being anaerobes they are able to thrive in low to no oxygen environments. The fact that they are facultative means they are also able to tolerate aerobic conditions - so they aren't going to keel over at the first whiff of air.

Higa put together combinations to find out which ones would co-exist. One mixture he had thrown on one of the patches of grass showed very good growth. This microbial combo became the foundation for EM•1®, and was first sold in Japan in 1982.

EM-1 contains these three types of microorganisms:

  • Lactic Acid Bacteria - This family of bacteria makes yogurt and cheese. They convert sugars into lactic acid. In doing so they lower the pH making conditions that inhibit growth of pathogenic microbes as well as making it impossible for methane producing microorganisms to survive.
  • Yeasts - Yeasts are single celled fungi such as those used in making bread and alcohol. They are fermentation starters.
  • Photosynthetic Bacteria - These bacteria are the ones that allow the other microbes in the mix to coexist. They use light to metabolize organic and inorganic substances. Drs Higa and Parr, in a paper called Beneficial and Effective Microorganisms for a Sustainable Agriculture, say the photosynthetic bacteria perform an incomplete photosynthesis anaerobically. They are especially beneficial as they can transform substances like hydrogen sulfide into useful substrates. As well, in the process water molecules are split yielding oxygen in the root zone.

Effective Microorganisms to the Rescue

The microbes in EM-1 have a whole bunch of applications. Here are some of them:

  • Bokashi composting - Naturally this is the application that first lead us to these microbes. Effective microorganisms are at the foundation of bokashi composting. The bokashi that is used to inoculate your compost materials as you collect them is made with a fermented mixture of bran, molasses, water and EM-1. Most beginner bokashi people will buy their bokashi ready made. Later though you may want to get together with friends and make your own bokashi.
  • Pet Poop - For those of us with omnivores and carnivore pets like cats and dogs a pet poop treatment system is available from Bokashi Cycle.
  • Farm and Garden - Effective microorganisms solutions can be diluted and used as a foliar spray, a soil treatment or a seed treatment for both garden and field crops.
  • Stink Buster - Effective Microorganisms attack odors by shifting the balance of life from the putrid types of anaerobes to the fermenting type you find in EM-1. The result is the gag inducing stench of say a hog operation becomes the infinitely less obnoxious aroma of fermentation of say pickles, wine or sauerkraut. For example: Pets - use as a spray to clean up accidents, add bokashi bran to litter or bedding in cages. Skunks - have a skunk prone pooch? Spraying a 1/10 dilution or full strength solution on your dog is said to eliminate the odor in seconds. Ponds, Waste water, Septic Systems - use to control smell and algae issues. Also works to clear blocked drains. Livestock - the obnoxious odors of hog, dairy and poultry operations can be controlled through the use of EM-1 sprays on bedding, in feed and to treat manure.


EM-1 and Fukushima

In my research about EM-1 I found that it is being used by organic farmers who are coping with contaminated soils from the Fukushima radiation leaks. An American group is documenting a variety of work being done to try to rescue the land. I found this video especially interesting. I contacted the makers who told me the farmer in this video is spraying his trees with an activated EM-1 spray. The video is in Japanese but has English subtitles.

Where to Get Effective Microorganisms, EM-1

The combination of effective microorganisms or EM developed by Dr. Higa is a registered trademark around the world. It is controlled by EMRO in Japan. They in turn license companies in countries around the world to produce and sell EM-1. Presently there are 59 countries with such an agreement.

Some people encourage you to cultivate your own EM culture. The method suggested will give you a lactic acid bacteria culture. However, the yeats and the phototrophic bacteria will be missing. It will work in much the same way with your kitchen wastes but you won't get the synergies you find in particular with those photosynthetic bacteria. But if the EM microbes are not available in your country, or if you just hate the thought of spending money you can try the newspaper bokashi method.


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