Shifting from an industrial to regenerative mindset and learning from nature is key to food sustainability, says biomimicry expert
DUBAI – Planet Earth and its many ecosystems can be humanity’s greatest teacher, and the lessons learned can help solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges, an issue raised during Food, Agriculture & Livelihoods Week at Expo 2020 Dubai. However, a shift in mindset away from the industrialised economy is needed in order to reap the benefits.
Biomimicry, the practice of learning from and mimicking the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges, is an underused an underestimated tool to address nutrition challenges, argued Dr Dayna Baumeister, Co-founder, Biomimicry 3.8 and Professor of Practice, Arizona State University at the ‘Sustainability @ Expo | Nature’s Harvest: Growing Sustainably for a Growing World’ on Friday, 18 February. While nature’s simple solutions can have far-reaching impacts, they are by no means new when the age of the planet – 4.5 billion years old – is considered and compared to the mere millennia when agricultural communities came to life.
Speaking at the session, which forms part of Expo 2020’s Food, Agriculture & Livelihoods Week, Dr Baumeister said: “In the current world model, we believe the economy is the master bubble, society is a subset of economy, and the planet a subset of society. We design with the economy as the dominant paradigm, resulting in industrial agriculture, where there is abundance of food, but also abundant food waste while others live without food security, and it’s also given us depleted soils, polluted waters, poor nutrition, obesity… many things that have not served us well.”
Sustainable agriculture, she argues, is not a solution. “There’s a tonne of unequal access when it comes to sustainable agriculture, and it’s still subject to the rules of the industrial system. For example, organic labelling is still following this mindset where economy dominates everything. It’s not coming from the spirit of ‘food is life’.”
So, what is the solution? The biomimicry expert believes there is an opportunity to develop regenerative agriculture, which takes a whole systems approach – nourishing all of life, not just that of homo sapiens. “We have organisms that have tightly coupled symbiotic relationships, such as a cactus that blooms when birds are migrating, offering them key fuel on both the North and South migrations. We also see chimpanzees that self-medicate, knowing which plants to eat for different ailments, but they don’t strip the forest of every single one of those food particles; they take only what they need and leave the rest.”
Many pioneers are innovating with this in mind. For example, an efficient, low-cost evaporative cooler inspired by honeybees mimics plant conditions to adds days to the life of produce, without refrigeration. Powered by the sun, it is ideal for communities without access to electricity. Meanwhile, other innovators created a fishing mechanism that mimics that of humpback whales, who swim in circles and blow bubbles that trap fish and no other bycatch.
Dr Baumeister posed several questions to challenge current thinking: What if homes did more than just shelter people, but were also rooftop gardens? What if gardens recharged groundwater and purified waterways? What if harvests were designed to support women entrepreneurs? Indeed, such solutions are possible. At Expo 2020 Dubai’s Desert Farm, for example, visitors can learn how tilapia – a fast-growing fish that can survive in the highest of temperatures and saltiest of waters – can enrich, produce nutrients and ultimately serve as a food source for plants.
Reinforcing the point, Dr Baumeister said: “Our planet is home to billions of mentors, and they all create conditions conducive to life while continuing to feed themselves, partaking in the abundance that life has to offer. Shouldn’t that be our mandate – that this is how we should go about feeding the world? Because we are nature, after all.”
In addition to being inspired by biomimicry, such as the Energy Trees with solar panels of Terra – The Sustainability Pavilion that rotate to face the sun, like a sunflower, Expo 2020 Dubai features six biomimicry micromuseums for visitors to learn more about the practice. Each is a standalone exhibition with a habitat theme with three iconic Arabian organisms that represent teachers, mentors and story tellers: sea, sun and earth. The micromuseums are located at Hammour House, the corner of Al Forsan and Ghaf Avenue, in Al Forsan Crescent, Visitor Centre Two, Sameem, and the Jubilee Playground.
Food, Agriculture & Livelihoods Week unites change-makers, innovators and stakeholders from across the global food value chain to spotlight food systems that are more productive, more inclusive of poor and marginalised populations, environmentally sustainable and resilient, and deliver healthy and nutritious diets for all. It is the ninth of ten Theme Weeks held throughout the six months of Expo, forming part of Expo 2020’s Programme for People and Planet, as an exchange of inspiring new perspectives to address the greatest challenges and opportunities of our time.