Put together a brilliant Japanese biochemist’s discovery with passionate organic farmers in Hawaii, and what do you get? The cultivation of “bokashi”, a probiotic infusion of helpful bacteria and fungi that raises the nutrient content of food, ferments food waste, suppresses the growth of pathogens, and restores a healthy balance to both soil and water.
Bokashi was innovated by Dr. Teruo Higa, a university researcher in Okinawa, mimicking centuries-old soil improvement practices of composting and fermentation that he studied in Asia. It is made by soaking a dry plant material like wheat bran, sawdust, or straw in a brew of Dr. Higa’s “EM” or essential micronutrients: lactic-acid forming yeast and bacteria.
The wet inoculated material is stored in an airtight container and allowed to ferment; the microorganisms use an anaerobic process - much like the one that makes beer or soy sauce - to multiply and break down the plant fibers. After two weeks, the fermentation process is paused, and the material is dried and stored.
On the farm, bokashi replaces the need for chemical fertilizers. “Instead of focusing solely on the chemical components of the soil like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, this method of farming is about enhancing the entire biological system,” said Clarence Baber, one of the first farmers to starting making and using bokashi in Hawaii, about 15 years ago.
“Our family farm has been here in Lalamilo for 30 years. We used to use a lot of chemicals - fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides - but after I stumbled upon Dr. Higa’s EM, we are now getting amazing results while growing food without chemicals,” said Ashley Goo, a Waimea farmer.
Although it sometimes sounds like wizardry, it’s not just a few visionary farmers who are cultivating indigenous microorganisms. The University of Hawaii Extension has acknowledged the benefits of bokashi, and offers bokashi for sale on Oahu, and provides workshops on its use.
Farmers using bokashi and other practices that enhance natural soil microorganisms are reaping benefits beyond those seen by simply farming without chemicals.
“When plants are grown in healthy soil, they become healthier, and better able to resist disease,” said Goo. “We’ve also cut back our use of water for irrigation because the topsoil is full of these microorganisms that hold water,” he said.
The impressive results for local farmers using bokashi does not really surprise Baber, who has stories to tell of indigenous cultures around the world that use similar processes, including Native Hawaiian farmers.
Hawaiians practiced the cultivation of soil microorganisms, said Baber. They would brew a mixture of very ripe sweet potatoes, sugarcane, or breadfruit by placing it on lava rock, a fairly sterile surface. After it had fermented, they would add it back into the soil. This method of probiotic farming is the reason that they were able to support so many people on a simple diet of sweet potatoes.
“It’s not just about growing food bigger or faster. Food grown in such healthy soil is much more dense with nutrients,” said Baber.
“With bokashi, you can compost any food waste, not just vegetables,” said Goo, who sells in-home composting systems using bokashi.
“We import the majority of our food, but so much of it ends up as trash in our landfills. If we could compost all that food waste, we could recycle those nutrients back into the soil and grow more food locally,” said Goo.
Regular compost piles cannot include food waste like meat, baked goods, or grease. Those materials usually rot through a process called putrefaction, creating that intense stink we usually identify with garbage cans, landfills, and sewage treatment, he said.
When you add bokashi to food waste, you create a fermentation process rather than putrefaction. Opening up the top of a bucket of week-old rotting food treated with bokashi, you would expect a nasty odor, but instead smell something akin to apple cider vinegar - slightly sweet and sour.
Not only backyard compost piles can be enhanced with bokashi; it can be used on a large scale to enhance the ability of entire ecosystems to better process waste.
“In Japan they are using bokashi to clean up the Seto Inland Sea,” said Baber. “All the residents were asked to put bokashi down the drain and flush it down the toilet,” he said. “The sea had been full of sludge and the fishing had died out. Within a few years, the water was naturally cleaned up, the sludge is gone, and the fish are coming back,” he said.
“We’re all hearing about the importance of probiotics, but for most people that now means taking little pills or supplements they get in the health food store. Soon we are going to come to realize that what we need is something on a much larger scale - probiotic farming, and probiotic food,” said Baber.
“It’s all about making a healthier environment for everyone,” said Goo.