Microorganisms and the Environment

When we were kids, we thought of “germs” as disgusting without knowing or understanding the world of microorganisms. The recent tour of the BioBus ( by members of EEAC, allowed us to see the way this mobile science lab uses research-grade microscopes to show visiting kids the world of microorganisms. In my view, such an experience provides an important point of awakening for children. It directs them toward understanding the critical role microbes play in the environment and overall health of individuals, ecosystems and the planet. Microbes are everywhere! We may only know about a fraction of the microbes that exist just about everywhere on earth. However, we are learning more about how they survive. They have been found in the depths of Arctic and Antarctic ice, by volcanic vents in the deep ocean, in battery acid, in the coolant water of nuclear reactors and 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 our bodies, which contain trillions of cells, have, at least ten times that many microbes. Microbes were here first. Every other life form, including us, evolved with them, not separately from them. As Teruo Higa, Professor of Horticulture at the Meio University in Japan, puts it, “We live in a sea of microbes.” He identified three types of microorganisms beneficial to life. He named these specific combinations of microbes as Effective Microorganisms or EM. He showed that EM are not only good at making nutrients available from organic matter, but they are also good at converting waste into useful and beneficial substances. In nature, microorganisms are intricately involved in the maintenance of a healthy environment and the cycle of life. Microbes break down organic matter from dead plants and animals, making nutrients available in a useful, absorbable form for living plants. In soils and water, microorganisms represent critical links in the food chain; they produce the nutrients other organisms need, either within the body of the organism itself, or in their environment. Microorganisms break down dead organisms and they themselves serve as food for other organisms, such as plankton, worms, insects and other microbes. It is important to care for the environment — and for the microorganisms, especially those that occur naturally. A hopeful sign of our growing awareness of the benefits of microorganisms to health and the environment is the increasing interest in fermenting foods and beverages and in fermenting food waste (which is what I do). Fermenting is becoming popular; people are pickling vegetables and brewing craft beers and drinks, like kombucha. These kinds of fermentation processes are in sync with nature, and they can be done at home and in the classroom. They rely on microorganisms that have evolved over millions of years and processes that humans have been using since ancient times. Recycling Food Waste by EM Fermentation There are two general ways in which organic matter is broken down: decomposition (aerobic and usually at high temperature) and fermentation (anaerobic and usually at normal air temperature). Furthermore, there is a distinction between methane fermentation and lactic/alcohol fermentation. The former involves naturally preserving organic matter (a benefit of fermenting foods), and the latter is the putrefaction, or rotting, of organic matter — basically the opposite of composting. 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 maintain a compost system. I have suggested 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, with Susan Greenfield and Barbara Augsburger, at the El Sol Brillante community garden on 12th Street between Avenues A and B. They have allowed me to help them and become a part of their team and we’ve developed quite a model there. By using EM 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. Our goal is to make our 12th Street Project—which would include three community gardens in the area, the elementary and high schools, and three restaurants nearby—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, demonstrate and help set up the method of recycling food waste by the EM 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) recycle their food waste and I was recently a part of a project, in collaboration with Earth Matter (, at the East Side Community High School where six students compared thermophilic compost with fermented food waste as a soil amendment. Training others to be able to teach this method has taken on greater importance. Just becoming aware of the role of microorganisms is important in order to better care for the environment. As awareness expands, people may be drawn to, instead of repulsed by, microorganisms, becoming interested in learning how microbes keep us alive and healthy and how we can use what nature has provided all along. E. Shig Matsukawa (, volunteer, 12th St Model Project, EM projects and school curriculum development For the full article and references, see

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