Agriculture Culture

March 19, 2013 at 10:37 am

Biomimicry and Agriculture: Sustainable Solutions Inspired by Nature

In this age of innovation, with all the world’s information just a mouse-click away and with start-ups filling every second urban office space, it’s easy to believe that all of our best ideas are coming from computers and the tech geeks who spend their lives mesmerized by them. However, an emerging discipline called “Biomimicry,” which looks to natural organisms and ecosystem processes for the next big idea, may soon have us thinking differently.

Biologist and sustainability consultant Janine Benyus defines biomimicry as “a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.” In other words, biomimicry is “innovation inspired by nature.” Since Benyus first established biomimicry as a discipline in 1997 with the publication of her first book on the topic, it has been utilized to innovate and execute new ideas in fields as wide-ranging as clean tech and waste-water treatment to architecture and textiles.

A diverse swathe of institutions—from the very corporate and profit-driven, such as Coca-Cola Company, General Electric, and Dupont, to the more progressive, such as Ecotrust, Seventh Generation, and the Land Institute—are placing their faith (and capital) in professional “biomimics” who help them create novel products that solve societal problems or adapt existing products and systems to be more sustainable, inspiring, effective, or otherwise in-tune with natural processes and systems.

While biomimicry is becoming an increasingly attractive tool for addressing our most pressing needs in an ecologically sensitive manner, many projects are still in the experimentation phase and the true potential of the discipline is only beginning to be uncovered.

Due to its inescapable relationship with the earth and natural ecosystems, agriculture offers ripe grounds for testing the potential of biomimicry to transform our world into a cleaner, healthier place. The Biomimicry Institute 3.8 is currently keeping tabs on a number of food- and agriculture-related biomimicry projects in its AskNature database. These include a closed-loop Colombian coffee farm system that takes inspiration from tropical and soil ecosystems to repurpose 99.8% of the coffee plant that typically goes to waste in the coffee-making process and turns it into a mulch with which coffee farmers grow shiitake mushrooms.

The Bromeliad flower's ecosystem

The Bromeliad flower’s ecosystem

Another example is The Vertical Farm Project, a program for “3-D” farming that centers on controlled hydroponic (soil-free) cultivation. Innovator Dick Despommier found inspiration in the way bromeliad flowers capture water in order to attract other organisms and “spawn a small community whose collective roles lead to nutrient supply for [the plant].” Though still in development, the project has found a way to use the lessons of tropical flowers to begin to solve emerging issues related to delocalized food production and increasingly limited arable land.

Perhaps the most promising case study of innovators imitating nature in order to solve agricultural issues is the Land Institute’s Natural Systems Agriculture project. Here, the Land Institute is using prairie ecosystems as a model for food production in which natural systems and processes obviate the need for pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and similar inputs. Specifically, they have been experimenting with wild, deep-rooted perennials like mammoth wildrye and maximilian sunflower in an effort to develop a polycultural agriculture system in Kansas that mimics natural prairie ecosystems.

The beauty of natural grain production in action (Source: The Land Institute)

The beauty of natural grain production in action (The Land Institute)

Researchers at the Land Institute believe that, with expected future advancements in plant breeding, these hardy perennials have the potential to produce grain yields equivalent to those of annual domesticated species like common wheat and corn, while also improving soil and water quality by conserving topsoil, returning nutrients to the earth, and relying on natural methods of pest control and self-fertilization instead of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer.

While researchers are eager to see their edible prairie spring to life, they remain adamant that all genetic progress in perennial grain species must be arrived at by natural means—that is, by generation-to-generation breeding as opposed to genetic modification. According to the tenants of biomimicry, genetic modification is a form of “using biology” rather than learning from it. As the Biomimicry Institute 3.8 explains, “In bio-assisted [genetic modification] processes, we domesticate the producer. In biomimicry, we emulate the producer.”

The goal with biomimicry is not simply to take lessons from natural processes and manipulate our resources until they mirror those processes; it is to refashion our own processes and retool our resources so that they align with those found in nature.

While biomimicry remains something of an infant discipline, its potential to impact the way we see our world and the way we generate ideas, create products, utilize our resources, and treat our planet is immense. It’s certainly worth the attention of our best innovators—maybe even those who prefer computer systems to root systems.

Chelsea Newson