I am a scientist, mystic and spiritual healer. My life straddles the worlds of so-called "left-brain" and "right-brain" interests. I trained at the undergrad level in electronics engineering and astrophysics, and at the graduate level in clinical psych, the health sciences and acupuncture, and have a Master's degree in the sciences. I work largely as a research and consulting scientist in some mainstream scientific fields and in fringe science, aka "strange science" fields as well.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Questions About "Garbage Enzymes" and "Farmer's EM" vs. EM Probiotic Microbial Products

In the past few months, I have been receiving an increasing number of inquiries from farmers, householders and consumers, particularly in Asia, about a homebrewed fermented product known as "garbage enzymes", and a very similar rlaated product which goes by the name of "Farmer's EM", and, in particularly asking how they compare to commercially-available probiotic microbial products with strong antioxidative and syntropic properties such as EM (aka effective microorganisms or efficient microbes.) Due to the increasing number of inquiries that I am receiving about these grass-roots homebrewed fermented products, I have decided that it would be useful to answer the questions here to help to clear the air a bit about these products.

First, most of the folks who have contacted me with questions about the homebrewed garbage enzyme product have asked me questions very much along the lines of the correspondent who had sent the note reproduced below:

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Hi Vinny:

I was experimenting with organic composting for my garden and stumbled upon your work with beneficial microbes via the Internet. I am also making what is generally termed as "garbage enzymes" in Asia. It is simply made with 1:3:10, of raw brown sugar, kitchen vegetable waste and water. This is left for 3 months. It can be used as fertilizers for plants, for washing and also to reduce odours of waste or sewage. Is this somewhat the same as EM but is a more primitive form?

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My reply appears below:

Some History and Background
Well, first, a bit of history.... For a couple of years now, an alternative health practitioner in Thailand named Dr. Rosukon Poompanvong, who is also a vocal proponent of organic farming and sustainable living, has been promoting very strongly the concept of using a homebrewed fermented concoction rich in enzymes and (hopefully) largely-beneficial microbes for treating kitchen waste and sewage to reduce odor and disease and for treating farm soil and garden
soil as a fertilizer. She calls the fermented concoction by the name "garbage enzymes", and she has been promoting the idea heavily in Thailand, and, at times, in neighboring Asian countries as well. Due to her promotion activities, the concept has gained a limited grass-roots following in
Thailand, and also in some parts of China, where householders are encouraged by the promoters to prepare and brew their own supply of garbage enzymes from vegetable (i.e. fruit and vegetable) waste from their kitchens.

The idea has also gained a limited grass-roots following in Malaysia, where it is largely promoted by a homeopathic doctor named Joean Oon, but in Malaysia, there is much less emphasis placed by Dr. Oon and her staffers on the idea of encouraging householders to brew their own supply of garbage enzymes, and rather, consumers are encouraged to purchase a commercial bottled liquid
product bearing the same name (i.e., "Garbage Enzyme"), and, in fact, when I was in Kuala Lumpur and neighboring cities in Malaysia a few months ago, nearly every health food store
and natural foods store had an entire shelf devoted to marketing large bottles of Garbage Enzyme product, and it was also heavily advertised in the mass media; the vendor seems to primarily market their product for treating kitchen vegetable waste and also septic tanks and sewage fields for odor control, and to use for washing and cleaning floors, toilets, etc.

According to Dr. Poompanvong's instructions, the garbage enzyme product is brewed by mixing one part of black sugar (a very dark sugar which has a high molasses content) or brown sugar (a dark sugar which has a moderate molasses content) with three parts of chopped kitchen vegetable waste (i.e., teabags, tea leaves, vegetable and fruit waste; no meat or animal products allowed) and with ten parts of water, and the mixture is briefly stirred and then allowed to
ferment anaerobically in a large covered plastic bottle or bucket for about three months in a warm setting (please remember that much of Thailand and Malaysia enjoy rather warm year-round outdoor temperatures, due to the tropical near-equatorial climate.) Incidentally, Dr. Poompanvong and other proponents of brewing home-brewed garbage enzyme always stress that is important to use only vegetable garbage in brewing the fermented mixture, and that it is important not to use any amimal products such as meat, fish, or dairy, as, they say,
inclusion of any of these products will create undesirable odors and may also encourage growth of undesirable microbes.

There exist, in many publications across Malaysia, similar instructions for creating a homebrewed microbial product for agricultural use called "Farmer's EM". This is, in essence, the same product as garbage enzymes , and thus my comments in this post apply to this product as well as to the product known as "garbage enzymes".

Once the three-month anaerobic fermentation period at warm temperatures has ended, the promoters of garbage enzyme claim that the liquid portion of the resultant product is filled with beneficial enzymes and beneficial microbes, and that it will reduce odors of kitchen waste or sewage and that it will also serve as a "fertilizer" for soil in farming and gardening. They also
claim that the liquid may be used as a deodorizing cleaning liquid for floors and for surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms.

What is It?

The garbage enzyme brewing process is simply a primitive process for encouraging fermentation, largely by naturally-occurring by lactic acid-forming bacteria such as Lactobacillus species, and also to some extent by naturally-occurring wild yeasts of vegetable kitchen waste and black sugar (or, in some cases, brown sugar). As such, it is somewhat analagous to the
"aerobic compost tea" (ACT) products which have become a fad among European and American organic farmers over the past ten years, which use a much shorter fermentation period, with intensive aeration, of much the same starting materials; the finished ACT product is then used as a fertilizer and ad hoc microbial inoculant for farm and garden soil.

The finished garden enzyme product, if properly brewed, will usually end up with a fairly large concentration of lactic acid-forming microbes such as Lactobacillus species, and with a somewhat smaller population of some wild yeasts and some other wild microbes as well. It will also contain some enzymes which may help to promote digestion of wast products in solid waste streams and
in sewage waste streams. Much of the claimed deodorizing activity, when present (and it should be noted that not all batches of garbage enzyme work as promised, because fermentation is subject to many variables, and some batches will come out "wrong") simply comes from the lactic acid produced by the lactic acid-producing bacteria during fermentation, and to a much lesser
extent, to some of the enzymes and other compounds produced during fermentation.

I am sure that properly-produced batches of garbage enzymes and "Farmer's EM" which are homebrewed using the proper techniques have some useful applications around the farm or around the household, but, as we will see below, the benefits are not comparable to the antioxidative, syntropic and powerful deodorizing effects -- nor the suppression of pathogenic microbes -- obtainable with EM products.

Comparison to EM

Is this garbge enzyme product at all similar to EM? Yes, to a very limited extent, it is vaguely similar to EM, because, like EM, it contains lots of lactic acid-producing bacteria such as Lactobacillus species, and also some beneficial yeasts. However, the real power of EM for use in treating waste and soil and for deodorizing and detoxifying purposes does not come from the lactic acid bacteria and yeast which are found in EM, but rather from the PNSB microbes and the Bacillus subtilis bacteria (natto bacteria) and a few other species which are found in EM. These microbes will rarely, if ever, be found in batches of garbage enzyme product. So, even the cheapest varieties of EM or its secondary liquid products such as AEM or SAEM will usually exhibit far more powerful properties in the following realms than will garbage enzymes:

  • deodorizing (one Malaysian correspondent reported that even cheap versions of AEM (an EM secondaryliquid product) exhibited about 50 to 100 times as much deodorizing power
    in tests as did batches of homebrewed garbage enzymes.)
  • detoxifying
  • antioxidant properties (almost totally lacking in garbage enzyme liquid and "Farmer's EM" liquid)
  • anti-entropic (aka negentropic or syntropic) properties (entirely or almost entirely lacking
    in garbage enzyme liquid and "Farmer's EM")
  • activity as a probiotic microbial inoculant culture to help with breakdown of solid waste and
    liquid waste
Another important point is that garbage enzyme liquid products are, for some very good reasons, considered to be entirely unsafe forconsumption by humans or animals, while most varieties of EM culture and mostvarieties of EM secondary liquid products (such as AEM or SAEM) are totally safe for human and animal consumption, and, in fact, are regularly used around the world as a nutritional supplement for humans, livestock and pets.

So, the bottom line is that while I am sure that Garbage Enzymeand "Farmer's EM" may at times (unless they end up containing pathogenic microbes, which is not always under the brewer's control) be useful homebrewed fermented microbial products, their performance in most or all realms does not come close to that of EM

I hope that this has helped!

with care,

--Vinny


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