San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Friendly Cleaners: Microorganisms

IN a laboratory at Earth University, 95 kilometers east of SanJosé, scientists and engineers are cultivating a concoction of 85 differentmicroorganisms, a stew of life that will clean your bathroom,compost your waste, keep you and your pets healthy, and offer ahost of other benefits, all while reinforcing the harmony of nature.It is called Efficient Microorganisms, or EM, and it is beingused in more than 130 countries around the world, according to theJapan-based Efficient Microorganisms Research Organization,founded by EM inventor Dr. Teruo Higa and dedicated to spreadingthis living technology throughout the world. Here in CostaRica, the organization is represented by Earth University, the onlyorganization in Latin America authorized to manufacture and distributeEM.“EM is a cocktail of microorganisms,” explained Juan CarlosPiñar, the commercial director for Earth University. “EM works,more than anything, as a controller of bad odors and an acceleratorof the decomposition of organic materials.”Created more than 25 years ago by Higa, a scientist and professorof horticulture at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa,Japan, and developed as an alternative to chemical fertilizers andpesticides, the EM cocktail is a mixture of 85 different microorganismsfrom three different families: lactic acid bacteria, phototropicbacteria, and yeast. Many of these are food-grademicroorganisms such as those used to make cheese, bread, beer orsoy sauce.EM works by combining with beneficial microorganismsalready existing in a particular environment – be it a bathroom, gardensoil, or a mammal’s intestinal tract – and helping them proliferate,Piñar explained. As these beneficial microorganisms grow,they compete for space and food, displacing the “bad” microorganisms– those that cause odors, disease or decay.AUSTRIAN Waltraud Berthel, better known as Colocha in thesouthern Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo, where she lives and oncedistributed EM, uses the product for a variety of purposes.“You can use it in your garden, farming, in your home,” shesaid. “I clean with it. We have a small tourism business, and I useit in my house and in the cabinas instead of disinfectant, chlorine oranything like that. You can even keep your whole septic system andpipes clean with it.“It’s an amazing thing. You can ingest EM; it’s good for you.It’s beneficial for everything.”EM has traditionally been used in agriculture and farming, toimprove the fertility and health of soil and to break down compostand organic waste, Piñar said.When composting, following the EM process (which meansusing a compost starter called EM Bokashi – bokashi beingJapanese for “fermented organic material”), organic material is brokendown in less than half the time required for regular composting– four to six weeks, according to material from the Efficient MicroorganismTechnology Network, one of many organizations worldwidededicated to EM. It also follows a process of fermentation,rather than putrefaction. This means it smells better, does not attractflies and creates a more nutrient-rich compound for use in gardeningor agriculture.EM can also be put in pigsties, henhouses or stables to reduceodors and turn the animals’ waste into compost, and it can be fed tothe animals to improve their digestion. It can also be used to washa pet so its hair doesn’t smell.In addition, it can be used for treating solid waste, in septictanks, for example, to reduce odor and clean the water.UNTIL now, Earth University has produced and distributedEM under the product name EM1, a concentrated form of the productfor agricultural and industrial use. EM1 can be made into somethingmore suitable for the home by mixing one liter of it with aliter of molasses (which serves as food to awaken the dormantmicroorganisms and allow them to reproduce) and 18 liters ofwater, and leaving the mixture to ferment for seven days. It thenbecomes 20 liters of what is called EM Activated.However, Earth University recently began distributing EMActivated, saving consumers that activation process, according toSusi Alfaro, who, with her husband, a graduate of the university,runs Eco Soluciones, a business that sells EM and helps peopleand businesses learn to use it.EM Activated can be used to get rid of mold, fungus and otherbacteria, eliminate unpleasant odors and generally keep a houseclean. One of its benefits, Alfaro explained, is that while withchemical cleaners, bacteria that are killed and smells that are coveredup eventually return, EM appropriates all the resources thatharmful and odor-producing microorganisms need to survive,thereby eliminating them permanently and taking their place.In the garden, EM increases beneficial microorganisms in thesoil, which means healthier and more nutrient-rich soil for plantsand less chance of disease cropping up.FOR Alfaro and others who use and promote EM, it is morethan just an effective product.“The idea, the philosophy, is this: to achieve equilibriumbetween the human being and nature, and that this is possible,”Alfaro said.EM Activated can be purchased from Eco Soluciones (282-5300) at ¢3,500 ($7.35) for a gallon, or ¢15,000 ($31.45) for 20liters, or at Dos Pinos stores for ¢2,925 ($6.15) a liter, or ¢10,650($22.35) a gallon, as well as at other locations. For more informationabout EM, call Earth University at 713-0067.

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