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G20 Summit on Environment Sustainability and Bioenzyme Mumbai University

Umesh bhai picked me up from Vetal Chowk at 1615 hrs. We drive down in his Swift to Airoli for dinner with my little sister (who is 52 now.) We get into a state of air-conditioned slumber. Get up at 0200 hrs to switch off AC. 0430 hrs - biological alarm goes off. 0700 hrs – we have a fruits and poha breakfast. Leave for Kalina. Ignore Google Maps advice and refuse to go via Vashi. We cross the Airoli creek bridge and get stuck in truck traffic going towards Bhiwandi via Eastern Express highway. But that’s the only bad patch. We reach Kalina at 0800 hrs. Parking available on campus. The invitation had not specified the hall. Took 20 minutes to locate the venue.

0930 hrs – session started. Preeti Rao’s Bio enzyme academy had done a lovely job. Their academic partner was Dept of Biotechnology of Mumbai Vidyapeeth. (The modern name of University of Bombay.) Half an hour of introductions, felicitation and dais population. Priti’s sensei, Dr Rosokon from Thailand, was to be the keynote speaker. She backed out because of health issues – and we heard her speak via recorded video. She got interested in enzymes because in a short span of time a lot of her family members died of cancer. Roskon’s root cause analysis indicated water pollution. And she found that enzymes can help both human and water bodies in the cure.

First speaker was Dr Sharad Kale. Worked with BARC on amongst other things enriching methane content in biogas. Has been an environment activist for the last 30 years. Was honoured with a Padma Shri in 2016. He gave us some very interesting oxygen math. We breathe 21,000 times every day. That’s 17,000 liters of air. That’s 3400 liters of oxygen. That translates to 3 kg mass. Oxygen retails at Rs. 11,000 per kg. That’s an oxygen bill of Rs. 33,000. That’s what we owe Mother Nature every day.

Sharad grew up in Ahmednagar. One day in a grade 5 math class he was given a question. Water is being pumped into a tank at the rate of 100 liters a minute. The tank is of 1000 liter capacity. But it has a leak which takes out water at the rate of 10 liters a minute. How much time will it take for the tank to be full? Sharad put his hand up – and asked the teacher a question which was quite relevant for water-starved Ahmednagar. Why don;t we repair the leak? Sharad bhau then recited a very apt Ghalib sher:

Ek hi bhool karta raha, Ghalib

Dhool chehre pet hi

Saaf karta raha aaina, Ghalib

Delete the word ‘garbage’ from your personal dictionary. Nomenclatures matter. Replace ‘kachra’ with ‘wealth’. This will change the way you think. A fallen leaf is a sanjeevani for the plant. Why do we even think of leaves as waste? A terrarium can support not just a plant but an entire ecosystem with insects inside. Goa has already started on the zero waste journey, Only about 3% of Goa’s daily waste lands up in landfills. They also run a 1 MW plant using methane generated in their landfills.

Can we follow the likes of Goa and Sharad in plugging these leaks ourselves, by making our houses zero-waste? Sharad talks of three things to plug the leaks happening in our houses:

· * Put your wet waste in a mixer and compost it. Wet waste accounts for 60% of methane emissions in landfills. This is because of anaerobic bacterial activity. If we convert this to aerobic – then greenhouse gas emissions come down 10X. Enzymes are biological catalysts. The shredding of waste is important – as bacterial digestion is dependent on surface area. This can enable conversion of kitchen leftovers to rich NPK manure in 24 hours.

· * Wash your milk bags. It does not take too much time – or for that matter, too much water. And makes life easier for the recyclers.

· * Choose a plate size that matches your appetite. Waste is defined as producing stuff that you do not consume. 25% of waste in landfills is food waste. Are we so rich to afford such waste? 6% of greenhouse gas emissions are because of the food that you leave on your plates.

Patanjali Jha (PJ) is someone who I had heard a lot about – but never ended up meeting. He had come with his mentee – a senior manager from JP Morgan Chase. PJ retired last year as Principal Income Tax commissioner of Mumbai. How green was India’s green revolution? (And if I may add, Kurien’s white revolution?) 30-40% of GHG are directly from agriculture. Dr Rattan Lal, a scientist who PJ admires a lot, mentions that if we can raise organic carbon level in soil to 2%, we can taken care of all the current GHG emissions. PJ read ‘the One Straw Revolution’ two decades ago. And was transformed. (The book’s Hindi translation -Tinke ki Kranti sounds equally revolutionary to me.) Unlike yours truly, who had also read the book 2.5 decades earlier, PJ actually started practising Fukouoka san’s teaching. His family owned a 15 acre plot of land near Indore on the banks of the river Narmada. Operation Vaanya was launched on this land. A conventional field was converted to a zero tilling permanent food forest.

There are 7 levels in the Vaanya forest. At the top are the subabuls. Then come the moringas and agastyas. Pan and other vines exist in the space immediately below the canopies of the trees. On the ground you have turmeric – and below that is vetiver grass. Below the ground you have turmeric – and elephant foot. (If you have been counting, you would have noticed that one level is missing. Blame that on senility.)

PJ is a big fan of black turmeric. He feels that black turmeric which has been kept in the ground for 14 months is a cure for cancer. Every year Vaanya grows 20 t of black turmeric – and all of that is gifted to cancer patients. It also works well for patients of rheumatic arthritis. The demand is picking up – and one can easily expect a price upwards of Rs. 400 a kg for this. The other plant that PJ is a fan of is vetiver. Along with 9 other well-wishers, he has donated 1.75 cr slips of vetiver grass to the army’s green task force. This grass has been planted at 2500 acres over 20 sites across the country, ranging from Marathwada to Bhati Mines to Pithoragarh to the banks of the Ganga.

Like any other grass, Vetiver helps reduce soil erosion. It recharges groundwater. It can sequester 15 kg of carbon per sq m. (Btw, only 1% of our soil carbon today is of organic origin.) But unlike most grasses, vetiver is a perennial. It provides green cover all around the year. (Check: is it also a nitrogen fixer?) And this cover increases 10 times every year, if animal and human activity are kept in check. PJ showed us an experiment involving tamarind saplings. Compared to a control sample, a sapling was surrounded by vetiver grass – grew at 3 X rate. What helped was moisture retention under the grass – and higher availability of nutrients in the root zone.

Later on in the day, we heard the Environment secretary of the Govt of Maharashtra speak. Total humbug. Was saddened: the Secretary happens to be COEP batch of 1990 – so a batchmate. His predecessor, who was also a speaker, was slightly better. He talked of introducing standardisation in quality for bioenzymes. Methinks that the pharma generic drugs would be a good template to follow for the just evolving bioenzyme industry. We don’t need brands, we need solutions.

PJ is the rare bureaucrat, who is not a paper tiger. PJ is now hunting for land in Pune to start a Vaanya project here. Btw, there are already 20 projects running across 1200 acres in the country today. PJ is based out of Bhopal. Plan to visit Indore soon to see his work – and hopefully implement some of his ideas at 14 Trees.

Dr Yong Ee Long from University of Technology in Malaysia was an online zoom speaker. She had an interesting warning for the enzyme enthusiasts. Enzymes have the same properties as most pollutants, so we need to be cautious in their dosage. One of the reasons for the decline in health of our water bodies, especially lakes, is the iron levels in the water. Brownish-reddish water indicates a surplus of iron. Iron also attracts metals like lead and arsenic into the system. The lactates and acetates of a bio-enzyme help convert the free radical water ions Fe2 into the more stable Fe3s which get absorbed by the soil. A bioenzyme also helps reduce nitrate and phosphate levels, as these get consumed by the bacteria for their own metabolism.

Mansee Bhargava talked of alternatives to bioenzymes for water body health improvement. She talks of Nualgi – a nanotech product which promotes diatom algal growth. Purification islands with rafts of Cyprus and canana. These islands promote water movement – and thereby its oxygenation.

We had Dr Susan Titus, a DRDO scientist, who works with the Naval Research Lab in Ambernath. They have made a bacteria based solvent for use in oil spills. Of the 30 odd types of bacteria that they found in sea water off the Mumbai coast, the team identified 3 which rely primarily on oil for their nutrition. Seema’s team has created a solution which contains a culture of these bacteria. This, when combined with deficient nutrients, can fix an oil spill in a matter of hours. Although oil contains carbon and hydrogen for bacterial activity, you also need Sodium, Pottasium and phosphorus. So the bacterial culture has to be used with this NPK fertiliser to get bacterial activity going. She also talked of bio-surfactants, something I need to research on.

The last session I attended was by Dinesh Mohan, a prof at JNU, he has been working on bio-char. Crop burning is one of the major contributors to GHG. This happens because of labor shortages, short times between crops and long stubbles that remain in crops because of mechanised harvesting. 1 to of crop burnt releases 2 kg SO2, 3 kg particulate matter, 60 kg Carbon monoxide and 1460 kg of Carbon dioxide. (Whoa, did I get the last one right?)

Like bio-enzymes, the word bio in bio-char seems to be a misnomer. Bio-char is simply charcoal, except that you control its ingredients by deciding on the temperature and time for which you allow the biomass to burn. (general thumb rule – 400 to 500 C for 0.5 to 5 seconds.) Dinesh has also developed reactors made of bricks or clay, which can be used in fields by farmers. The black biochar, like PJ’s black turmeric, is an elixir of sorts. India already has 2-3 companies which are making biochar – and there are opportunities for many small units to spring up in this space.

I knew about the water filtration use of porous charcoal, but was told that it can also be used as an excellent fertiliser. (So does this justify the common practice of grass burning?) It increases water retention in the soil. It also increases microbial activity. It can help reduce the odour in compost pits. It can help improve shelf life of fruits which are kept in bio-char powder – as it is anti-bacterial and regulates humidity. They have started using biochar in manufacturing door boards. It increases cation exchange capability – means it can release minerals in a slower so better manner. Biochar has a half life of 1000-2000 years. Am not too sure what that means, but I guess it means that it will get oxidised in that amount of time – but till then it has the capacity to lock in megatons of carbon. Biochar is also being experimented as a cattle feed supplement to see if that can lead to a reduced methane output from the guts of our bovine friends. (Am sure my family may want to feed me some if this experiment turns out to be successful.)

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Absolutely loved your writeup.The main takeaway's from each of the talks were very helpful to those of us who could not attend. Picked up some finer nuances of composting from your account of Dr Sharad's talk.

You mention that Dr Yong Ee Long from University of Technology , Malaysia had an interesting warning for the enzyme enthusiasts. You quote her as saying - "Enzymes have the same properties as most pollutants, so we need to be cautious in their dosage." Did she share specific dosages for uses ?

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