Food loss is a problem for producers and consumers alike. Product that fails to reach the market is a financial loss for producers, while food loss increases food scarcity for consumers.
Food. We all need it. And, believe it or not, we already produce enough food to feed Earth’s 7.8 billion people. In fact, in 2018, the world produced enough to feed 10 billion! Yet, an estimated 820 million people worldwide go hungry today. The reasons are complicated and are due to many factors, including conflict, economic crisis, climate change, and COVID-19. And, as the world’s population increases, if we continue to utilize our current methods we will continue to put unsustainable pressure on the environment to feed everyone.
This difference between food produced and food actually consumed has to do with food loss, which is the quantity of food that fails to reach the consumer due to inefficiencies in the supply chain. This loss is caused by pest infestation, spoilage due to inadequate temperature control and storage, and changes in surrounding chemical composition, to name just a few of the reasons.
Food loss is a problem for producers and consumers alike. Product that fails to reach the market is a financial loss for producers, while food loss increases food scarcity for consumers. Sustainable agricultural production requires attention to both the environment and human health. The following companies and start-ups are problem solvers looking to nature for solutions using biomimicry, “a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges.”
Nanomik Biotechnology, a 2020 Ray of Hope Prize® finalist, works to eliminate crop spoilage with its plant-based fungicides that protect crops from fungal diseases both before and after harvest. As co-founder Arda Örçen explains, 25% of total fruit and vegetable crops are lost every year due to fungal spoilage. Many synthetic fungicides are restricted or banned by governments due to their harmful effects on both the environment and human health. A large number of fungicides are ineffective due to fungi developing resistance to them. And, a large percentage of fungicides are washed away from plant surfaces. While plants have their own natural chemical defense systems, they unfortunately degrade rapidly due to UV exposure, oxidation, and heat.
To address that problem, Nanomik has used biomimetic thinking and reinforced the defense systems naturally used by plants. These eco-friendly, plant-based fungicides consist of microcapsules that release molecules that defend the plant’s surface from fungal infection.
To help reduce spoilage, Nanomik’s products are available for commercial use, and can be applied to prevent fungal infection on both growing crops and harvested produce.
Like Nanomik, another Ray of Hope Prize finalist company, Pheronym, has developed products as alternatives to harmful synthetic pesticides. Their products target nematodes, microorganisms naturally found in soil and already commonly-used in organic agriculture, that can be either beneficial or harmful to plant growth. Pheronym uses pheromones, a chemical communication language, to instruct beneficial nematodes to kill pest insects as well as to repel parasitic nematodes from crop roots. The Pheronym team’s biomimetic model is “inspired by the elegant chemical language that nematodes use to communicate.”
As a finalist of the 2019 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, Rice Age is trying to create more efficient, sustainable rice production. It has designed a rice seedling tray inspired by the hexagonal pattern found in honeycomb, which allows for more rice to be planted in the same area.
Rice Age takes inspiration from efficient structures found in nature, such as “the nasal turbinates from the human nose, the air circulatory system of the termite mounds, and the closed loop system implemented by ZERI where they reuse their coffee wastes.” The hexagonal tray, in addition to optimizing land use, also improves resource distribution within the crop plot. Channels within the hexagonal cells reduce water loss and oxygenate the soil, which reduces microbial methane emissions. Rice Age has designed its biodegradable tray to fit into a closed-loop waste system, mimicking nature’s ability to cycle organic matter.
Another BGDC finalist, Tomato’s Home, aimed to address Nigeria’s extreme tomato harvest loss as part of its solution idea. “As one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest producers of tomatoes, Nigeria grows up to 1.5 million tons of the fruit annually, yet nearly half of that harvest fails to make it to the market.” The Tomato’s Home team designed a concept for a tomato storage system using biomimetic architecture to decrease post-harvest food waste by prolonging the freshness of the fruit.
The system is composed of a protective basket to prevent bruising, which is inspired by pea pods. Multiple baskets are stored within a modular storage building, which utilizes natural ventilation by mimicking how crickets breathe, and temperature control, looking to cactus spines and the shells of desert snails for inspiration. The modules also emulate the thatched nests built by South American grass-cutting ants that thermoregulate. And finally, the quiver tree’s strategy of protecting its branches from the heat of the sun with a thick, reflective, white powder is also utilized. The biomimetic strategies in the module’s design have many positive attributes and prolong the freshness of tomatoes postharvest by five to six days.
Another startup, Milk & Juice, aimed to reduce milk spoilage through their milk churn container design. Like Tomato’s Home, this design utilizes thermoregulation characteristics of desert snails to reduce milk temperature. The design includes tiny cone-like structures that kill bacteria by breaking apart bacterial membranes, inspired by structures called nanopillars found on the wings of cicadas. Emulating the Mountain Alcon Blue butterfly’s tactic to defend against ant attacks by mimicking queen ant frequencies, Milk & Juice containers will generate magnetic fields to reorient and disrupt the magnetotactic bacteria in the milk. With the introduction of these containers into the supply chain, Milk & Juice plans to reduce product loss and increase the value and availability of dairy and pulp products in developing countries.
All of the above are components of agriculture that have been redesigned using biomimetic thinking. Each strategy pushes our agricultural system closer to the ideal of a sustainable ecosystem, similarly to how it is illustrated by the film, The Biggest Little Farm.
The film (not affiliated with The Biomimicry Institute) chronicles the formation of Apricot Lane Farms, and explores the complexities of sustainable farming practices. Apricot Lane uses biomimetic design on a systems level to transform 200 barren acres into a sustainable farm whose productivity and biodiversity explodes once a system that mimics nature is rebuilt. The farmers’ stated philosophy is that “the farm is treated as a micro-ecosystem managed through methods best described as biomimicry mimicking the biological balance found in our earth’s ecosystem…” This documentary illustrates the effectiveness of using the solutions nature provides to solve problems.
“The goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” We must reimagine our agricultural structure to enmesh healthy human food production with natural ecosystems. New sustainable strategies, like the ones outlined above, can address environmental and human health issues in order to create a balanced agricultural system.
Jennifer Taekman is a Humanities-Trained-Science-Enthusiast specializing in biomimicry. She retired from practicing law to raise her two kids, who have inspired her to be a good steward of our earth, an aspiring writer, and an environmental educator.
Ben Hodgson is a student and environmental advocate studying environmental science at UC Davis, California. He is inspired by the complex functions and beautiful aesthetic of interrelated natural systems, which he captures in his nature and wildlife photography.