What is Biomimicry?
And Can It Help with Global Food Concerns?
Biomimicry. This is a term some people may be familiar with, but most of us aren’t 100% clear on what it means. So let’s start with the basics, and turn to the Oxford English Dictionary. This esteemed resource defines biomimicry as “The design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes.”
In other words, biomimicry occurs when humans try to copy nature. And naturally leads us to the question of “Why?” More specifically, “Why copy nature when modern technological advances have brought us wonders like the smartphone and the internet?”
The answer is very simple – nature, at its very heart, is more sustainable and adaptable than the vast majority of man-made technologies. It has also been perfected over millions and billions of years, a time-scale we humans have only seen a very small part of.
I’m still confused.
Let’s take an example we should all be familiar with – the mosquito. There have been a lot this summer in Texas, and yet, chances are, many of them have bitten you without you ever seeing the culprit itself, only the bite after the fact. This is because a mosquito’s bite is relatively painless. In fact, compare that to the last time you had a blood test,and you will probably agree the needle hurt more.
Thus, studying the mosquito’s proboscis to create a less painful needle is a great example of biomimicry, and two doctors named Kong and Wu have made strides to develop this pain-saving technology.
That helped! Tell me more.
So now let’s apply this to global food concerns, which really gets at the heart of sustainability in natural design. The food system we have created is imperfect. We are depleting good soil of nutrients, changing the landscape to allow cheap, mass-production of food (quantity over quality), using more water than is replenished, and creating massive amounts of waste – all while some starve because they cannot generate the food they need to survive.
A more natural food system minimizes waste because even waste products serve a useful purpose in the life cycle of the biota in that habitat. Life also survives in harsh, unexpected conditions, using innovations that have evolved over time to support both plants and animals in areas where you would expect to find neither. There is no need to reinvent the wheel to fix our broken food system – instead we can get back to nature and see how the experts do it!
What sort of scientists do this kind of work?
The Biomimicry Insitute believes that the global food system is one of the most urgent issues of our time. As a result, each year they run a competition called the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, which asks anyone (from schools to industry professionals) to look to nature to solve some of the big problems in the current design of our food system.
Two of the top entries from 2016 are outlined below:
- Six Canadian high-schoolers tackled the problem of crop irrigation, which consumes more than its fair share of fresh-water. An alarming amount of this water is lost to the air by evaporation in arid regions, instead of actually watering the crops. By studying the adaptations of biota (particularly cacti) living in regions where water is scarce, they created a device, called Stillae, that can capture water from the air before it has completely evaporated, store it in a reservoir, and recycle it back into the irrigation water supply.
- Crop production (particularly corn) requires the use of abundant fertilizers, which inevitably end up polluting nearby water sources, which can devastate local fish populations and lead to deadly algal blooms. A team from the University of Oregon took their inspiration from worms and created the Living Filtration System, which is designed to prevent any excess nutrients entering the groundwater supply that subsequently leaves farmland.
Both of these inventions illustrate the power of looking to nature to solve some of the greatest problems facing our food system today.
Have you heard of any interesting examples of biomimicry? Share with us in the comments!