What Design Can Do for the Impact of Climate Change on Crops
Every year the Biomimicry Design Institute encourages professionals and students to take on the Biomimicry Design Challenge, a contest focused on solving critical sustainability issues through developing concepts inspired by nature. The idea is that biomimicry – the imitation of nature’s patterns and strategies to improve human inventions – can help us to create sustainable solutions to contemporary problems. After all, what’s more sustainable than nature itself?
Our design team decided to join this year’s Biomimicry Design Challenge, and we chose to focus on finding new solutions for minimizing food loss in developing countries. Our challenge was to create a nature-inspired innovation (a product, service or system) that combats climate change by helping communities adapt to or mitigate climate change impacts. Keep reading to find out what we came up with, and what the jury thought of our concept!
The challenges of food loss
In developing countries where food mainly originates from low-tech agriculture, the slightest climate change results in poor crop or no produce at all. On top of that, low-income countries also experience a lot of food loss due to storage issues, which are mainly tied to insects and rodents (30-40%), funghi (25-40%), abiotic factors, temperature, humidity and rain. Difficult to control factors like these are largely to blame for the fact that almost 13% of the developing countries’ population is malnourished.
Mother Earth really knows best
But can nature really help us generate more innovative and sustainable solutions? Definitely! First of all, getting inspired by nature broadens your vision, and designers need triggers to stay creative. After I spent a couple of days reading about different animals and plants, I found brainstorming to be much easier. Moreover, if nature already figured out which strategies work the best, why wouldn’t we adopt some of them to create a more sustainable world?
Inspired by natural defense mechanisms
Our team investigated food waste in Bangladesh, a country we chose because it is very vulnerable to climate change. The main crop in this area is rice, which is largely wasted in storage due to attacks of rodents and insects. To solve this issue, we turned to nature for inspiration and learned how animals and plants protect and defend themselves.
As it turns out, some biological strategies are truly astonishing. For instance, when facing danger, vultures start throwing up, which instantly distracts the imminent threat. Other birds employ different but equally as effective defense strategies. For example, storks build their nests above alligators’ habitats. The idea is that the presence of carnivorous reptiles discourages other predators from hunting their nestlings.
How the power of scent can be a bodyguard for rice
The animal we ultimately felt most inspired by was the giraffe. The skin and fur of giraffes naturally contain volatile compounds that repel organisms such as ticks and microbes, which lead us to develop a product that protects rice stocks from rodents and insects by releasing a repelling chemical. Creating a new type of scented textile seemed to be the best option to put this concept into practice.
The smell of rice triggers rodents to pursue the rice stock with an intention to satisfy their hunger (motivation). Rodents' ability depends on how difficult it is to access the stock. On the other hand, farmers are triggered to protect their rice stock when they see damage or notice rodents' presence. They are motivated to do so because rice serves as the staple food for the whole household and their ability depends on how easy it is to recognise the damage and get rid of rodents.
We contained natural repellents in tiny spheres called microcapsules and sprayed these over the non-woven textile. Whenever friction is applied to the textile, the microcapsules break and release the repellents, leading to less rice being destroyed by small animals and insects.
The jury’s feedback
The jury praised our level of creativity. They recognized that we looked at how climate change affects food waste, and that we were able to narrow it down to a more specific issue: the loss of rice stock in Bangladesh. Our concept was thought to bring significant benefits to the Bangladeshi society. However, the environmental gain of our project was not that obvious to the jury, mainly because climate change was not addressed directly.
Regardless of there being room for improvement, we were selected for the second phase of the evaluation process. Taking into account that this was our first time working with biomimicry, we were very pleased with the result. The comprehensive evaluation of both our design process and the final concept will definitely increase our chance to win next time we enter the Biomimicry Design Challenge. For this first attempt we are very proud receiving the Award of Merit certified by Megan Schuknecht, director of Design Challenges.
Make sure to read more about biomimicry and climate change: