The History of Bokashi
Today bokashi composting systems are used worldwide as an alternative to traditional composting. While the exact path that bokashi has taken to get to the inoculated bagged bran that we know today isn’t clear, it is clear that modern day bokashi has its origins in the Far East. It was there that relatively recent scientific research merged with traditional farming methods resulting in the fermented mixture of beneficial microorganisms and a carrier that is bokashi.
The roots of bokashi are wrapped around the traditional natural farming philosophy practiced in Korea and other parts of Asia. One aspect of natural farming involves the culturing of indigenous microorganisms, IM; these are naturally, locally occurring microorganisms that are cultured onto a substrate such as cooked rice or milk. Many of the “wild” cultured microorganisms are the same organisms found in most bokashi bran that has been made using EM. Today the natural farming movement had been advanced by people such as Dr. Han Kyu Cho and Mokichi Okada.
The tie to Japan lies in the discovery of EM, or Essential Microorganisms, by Dr. Teruo Higa. Dr. Higa was born in Okinawa, Japan in 1941. As a young boy he had was involved in agriculture and the hard work that went along with it. He went on to pursue that passion at Ryukyus University. He graduated from the agriculture department and went on to get a doctorate in agriculture research from Kyushu University where he spent his time focusing on the cultivation of mandarin oranges, a large part of which involved the use of chemical fertilizers which he was an ardent supporter and believer of at the time. Following his graduation he returned to Ryukyus where he began teaching, eventually becoming a professor in 1982.
One day while conducting some research on watermelons in the Middle East he had an epiphany – “he can to realize that agriculture had come to rely far too heavily on the use of chemicals, and decided to find a better approach where something like microorganisms could be used to manage plant growth”(ESR). Having been aware of existing research into the area of agricultural microorganisms he began conducting research looking for microorganisms that could universally support plant growth. It was during this research that he discarded a combination of test microorganisms from that day’s work on some grass near his laboratory. As time passed he noticed that the grass that came into contact with the waste mixture of microorganisms was extremely health and vibrant compared to the other grass in the area. He then came to the conclusion that it must be the combination of all of the microbes that had such a beneficial effect on the plant growth. At the time this was thought to be impossible; general thinking said that the combination of the microbes should have resulted in antagonistic behavior, with each type of microorganism competing negatively with other types. Never the less, Dr. Higa used this accidental discovery as a stepping stone and continued his research collecting and mixing a large number of microbes from all over looking for that optimum blend. He continued to fine tune the combination it until he finally developed EM in the late 1970’s, or effective microorganisms, the successful combination that fulfilled all of his criteria, “the promotion and maintenance of healthy plant growth resulting in more abundant harvest of better tasting crops”(ESR).
The result was an optimized blend of primarily lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and phototrophic bacteria that work synergistically together creating a system for mutual support. The members of the consortium benefit from the byproducts and waste of the other members. Simultaneously they have the ability to create beneficial by products such as enzymes, anti-oxidants, and vitamins. The combination of microorganisms is dominant in nature has the ability to reeducate and out compete harmful pathogenic bacteria. These properties led the way for EM usage to spread into the waste management and animal husbandry sectors. With a wide variety of uses EM was first marketed in Japan in 1982 and is now used in over 120 countries worldwide.
So where did EM and bokashi meet to become EM bokashi? The most likely tie between the two is Dr. Higa’s relationship to Sekai Kyusei Kyo (SKK), a religious organization in Japan that promoted natural farming, Kyusei Natural Farming. Somewhere after the discovery of EM by Dr. Higa, the two parties connected. Dr. Higa is not, and was not ever a follower of Sekai Kyusei Kyo, but the goals of Dr. Higa and his EM and practitioners of nature farming within SKK were aligned, in that both wanted to move away from agricultural chemicals to allow food to be more nutritious, safer, and more sustainable. EM gave natural farming practitioners a way to achieve this goal through its various uses, so there was a inherent synergy there. One component of natural farming was bokashi, and various forms of bokashi fermentation had been practiced by farms through Asia for generations using indigenous microorganisms, so the introduction of EM as a microbial source seemed like a natural fit. The microbes in EM were optimized and they were cultured in a laboratory so the mixture was consistent in quality, and the could be produced in large quantities and easily distributed. Dr. Higa mentions the use of EM in natural farming applications in his 1993 book the Earth Saving Revolution. “Amazing harvests are being obtained using absolutely none of these substances [artificial chemicals and fertilizers] at all but a fermented mixture of rice bran, rice straw, fish meal and EM concentrate called “EM Bokashi” spread over the area to be cultivated together with an appropriate amount of liquid EM in place of regular compost. The result: larger harvest of better quality produce which is complete free from harmful chemical residues”(ESR). The availability and convenience of EM now made it possible for more people to start practicing bokashi. The goals of both groups were also aligned. EM was created to move away from agricultural chemicals and
This EM is then impregnated on a carbon sources such as rice or wheat bran where the microorganisms sit dormant until they are exposed to moisture and a sugar source. Today the largest users of bokashi are found in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
Sources: Dr. Teuro Higa – The Earth Saving Revolution