AcidophilusAcross the spectrum of farming systems, there exists a principle that links us to the land inextricably.  We are Earth bound humans.  We live and eat in a complex system.  We often search for a faster more efficient means to meet our growing demand.  Ecological farming is no different than any other type of system; the total energy in the system is the same.  It is the awareness of the interconnectedness of life that is the difference.  On one hand, conventional agriculture emphasizes massive yields, profits, and inputs, but the system is based on complex systems of capital and chemicals. On the other hand, ecological farming emphasizes the development of sustainable and regenerative ecological systems on a much smaller scale that mimic nature’s patterns.   In conventional production, yield and therefore profits are the goal.  In ecological systems, quality of life in the broadest sense is the goal, and soil life is the primary focus. Therefore, embracing and understanding the potential contained in, as well as developing and expanding working models of effective microorganism systems is a crucial role for farmers, earth-livers, and earth savers in this new millennium.  They may be the only solution we have left.  

The discovery and development of EM technology is the brainchild of Teruo Higa, plant professor at Ryukus University in Japan.  EM technology can be best defined as a synergistic consortium of lactic acid bacteria, fermentative and photosynthetic microbes, yeast, fungi and actinomycetes in a carbohydrate solution. EM technology came out of studying traditional Kyusei Nature Farming, and is a core element of its practice.  Traditional techniques of Kyusei Nature farming involved procuring forest soil to obtain healthy microbes to make compost.  Now the microbes of EM are available all over the world, thanks to several organizations founded to spread this knowledge the Asian Pacific Natural Agriculture Network in Thailand and the International Nature Farming Research Center in Japan.

greenhousePrimarily, this unique microbial concoction was developed to improve plant and soil health, by increasing photosynthetic and organic matter production. Another key component of EM is its ability to operate in aerobic and anaerobic conditions. This gives it a broad application across many environments found in the soil and in animals. The focus of this essay will be on plant interactions, although EM is effective in numerous animal systems.

The most remarkable property of EM often confounds it usage: EM can be used just about anywhere, but it is not a panacea or cure all.  It is basically a soil conditioner and lactic acid consortia.  Its wide range of uses will never correct improper application. Spraying EM all over a farm will not improve soil organic matter production if proper cover cropping and residue management is not executed.  However, timely applications in a properly managed and robust agro-ecosystem can show great results.  To some degree, good results require good luck, but the rest is good preparation.  The hardest part of EM technology is being in tune with the parameters for success. You have to think like a microbe, while simultaneously managing your own desired outcomes.  At the same time, using EM for all life stages of your system will show improved synergy, but there are a lot of variables to consider.  EM is a living entity, and must be treated like one; it only flourishes given proper conditions to operate.

The most efficient property of EM is its ability to improve the captured solar energy and far infrared radiation in plants.  The most efficient plants only utilize 3-5% of all available solar radiation, while the rest of plants only use 1% of Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR).  Applying a solution of EM on a plant allows the phototrophic bacteria on the leaf surface to engage in active carbon synthesis, while being readily absorbed by the host plant. This can help plants overcome stress, and increase biomass over the growing season.

Another important property of EM is an ecological interaction called competitive exclusion. A weaker less stable entity cannot overtake a stronger more stable one in nature. Most plant diseases are wind-borne and opportunistic.  If there is no niche to fill, they will not flourish.  The backbone of EM is the strongly acid Lactobacillus, which are characterized by unusually low pH and very thick cell walls. Most bacteria cannot survive in these conditions. Therefore misting a crop with a solution of EM will allow the plant to reduce pathogens, while increasing carbon synthesis.

Finally, EM is generally pretty cheap to use, and a little goes a long way.  One liter of purchased EM mother culture can be made into 20 liters of high quality EM secondary solution.  Application rates vary from one hundred to one thousand times dilution.  At this rate, one liter could yield 2,500 gallons of field ready high quality spray.  Teruo Higa suggested that EM should cost around $20 per liter in the early 1980’s.   In the US today, a liter of the highest quality EM is about $26.

EM is the type of tool in the eco-ag toolbox, where when correctly applied, will show a great improvement, but is often hard to measure scientifically.  However, that doesn’t make its capacity to improve farming outcomes any less important.  By allowing farmers to utilize more on farm resources and manage pests and disease with out buying costly and dangerous inputs, the economic and social cost of agriculture is greatly reduced.  This is the earth saving revolution Teruo Higa envisioned.

By simply updating good basic traditional ag practices with modern research and knowledge, a strong coalition of human scale localized sustainable Natural farming is created. Small changes in practices and methods can have an important environmental and economic impact on communities throughout the world.  There is no other type of technology that puts so much potential into the hands of every farmer in the world, at a low cost.

There are some who attempt to discredit the viability of EM with the “if you build it they will come” theory.  In other words, the natural state of an ecosystem is inherently in balance, microbially and otherwise.  Agriculture is an inherently an unnatural disturbance oriented system.  The natural state of soils is not one of disease suppression. To my knowledge, there is not a soil type that improves the photosynthetic capacity of plants.  Also, biological forces have as strong an influence on ecosystems as abiotic forces.  This is the purpose of organic, natural and eco agriculture. To put it bluntly, our current food production scheme was created against the obvious patterns of nature.  The world over, across continents, the vision of Teruo Higa is being implemented.  The only place where there are no models of EM technology being used is of course the US.  Now is the time to change that.  No corporation will save the world.  It is up to us.

Submitted by Michael Hutchison, contributing author and EM technician