AskNature: How can we build resilient food systems?

Sea ice diatoms
Arctic Exploration 2002, Rolf Gradinger, NOAA/OER.
Sea ice diatoms have proteins that prevent ice crystals from puncturing their cells. Could we mimic this structure in our manufacturing designs?

The following is adapted from the Biomimicry Institute's Ask Nature Collections of strategies and products, inspired by nature, to address the 21st century's greatest design challenges. Find the full collections here.

Healthy ecosystems are highly productive because of the resources available to them. They produce food for an abundance of species, provide pollination services, filter and distribute water, cycle nutrients, provide seeds for future harvests, package and transport goods and adapt to changing conditions. These are all things that we want and need our own food systems to do. And ecosystems accomplish these outcomes in a cooperative, energy-efficient manner.

This collection highlights biological strategies that could provide inspiration for how to improve our food systems. Look closely and you'll see how applying these strategies, whether directly or metaphorically, could lead to improved soil quality, better packaging, reduced spoilage, more effective feedback loops and more efficient food production and distribution techniques.

The United Nations projects the world population to reach 9 billion by 2050. How will we feed the future population? The following three strategies offer inspiration.

1. Protein that enables growth in freezing temperatures


Sea ice diatoms are single-celled algae that live in extremely cold, aquatic environments, including Arctic and Antarctic sea ice. In these harsh environments, they have developed mechanisms to protect themselves against the extremes of temperature, salinity and light. One such mechanism is extracellular ice-binding protein.

Extracellular ice-binding proteins excreted by sea ice diatoms align themselves with and bind to the small, growing ice crystals just outside of the sea ice diatom’s protective outer layer. While the exact binding mechanism is unknown, it is believed that the ice-binding proteins act as complementary pieces to ice crystals in a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

The ice-binding proteins lock the small ice crystals in place, thereby preventing them from rearranging into a larger ice crystal. This rearrangement of small ice crystals into a larger one (known as ice recrystallization) occurs spontaneously and is a natural part of ice crystal growth.

Ice recrystallization is a primary mechanism of cell death in freezing temperatures. While the small ice crystals can exist at the surface of cells without causing cell death, large ice crystals cannot. Large ice crystals, formed when the adjacent small ice crystals join together and align themselves in the same direction, act as knives to the cells. The large ice crystals are powerful enough to force their way in between cells and puncture the cells’ protective outer layer. The insides of the cells, when exposed to freezing temperatures, die. The extracellular ice-binding proteins prevent the large ice crystals from forming, and are thus essential for the growth and survival of sea ice diatoms embedded in ice.

Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application ideas: Freeze-resistant solutions to protect crops in frost conditions. Agents that extend the growing season in cold climates by preventing soil from freezing. Improved storage of frozen foods. Freeze-resistant paints, coatings, adhesives, pavement and concrete. Improved techniques for cryosurgery. Improved insulation for equipment, clothing, or buildings.

Industrial sector(s) interested in this strategy: Agriculture, forestry and fishing; manufacturing; construction; transportation and storage; professional, scientific and technical activities; human health and social work activities.

2. Foragers respond to the speed and efficiency of other ants


Within ant colonies, each ant has a specific role. In the leaf-cutter species, foraging ants are tasked with collecting leaf fragments and bringing them back to the colony.

One may think that a forager would collect the largest possible payload. However, high payloads are not shown to result in more efficient transport. Instead, foragers generally carry loads well below their maximum potential. Load size is influenced by two factors: a more manageable workload for processor ants, and the speed of other foragers. 

When foragers return to the colony, they pass their loads to the processor ants. Processors collect the material and distribute it among the colony. There are more foragers than processors. If every forager brought large loads to the colony, the processors would be overwhelmed by the volume of leaves coming into the colony and fall behind. As a result, materials would not be distributed throughout the colony in a timely manner.

Foragers also carry small loads in order to maintain a consistent speed in relation to other ants. Foragers travel to and from their colony in a single file line, also referred to as unilateral transport. This is because foraging ants travel by following the chemical scent of the forager directly in front of them. It’s as if ants travel down a one-lane highway, where passing is illegal. Because smaller loads mean faster foraging and bigger loads mean slower foraging, if one ant chooses to take a larger than average load it will slow down the entire group. This can have a serious effect on the colony as a whole.

Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application ideas: Increasing accessibilty to food by creating smaller regional markets rather than large, big-box grocers. Streamlining assembly lines to prevent one section from falling behind another. Modeling traffic flow and restricting travel of heavy loads at high traffic. Organizing product shipment loads to maximize efficiency and minimize energy. Processing different types of data at different speeds to reduce bottle-necking. Streamlining assembly lines to prevent one section from falling behind another.

Industrial sector(s) interested in this strategy: Agriculture, forestry and fishing; manufacturing; mining and quarrying; construction; transportation and storage; accommodation and food service activities; information and communication.

3. Plant species diversity creates long-term stability


An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. A healthy ecosystem includes multiple species that serve similar functions or roles. For example, more than one species that fertilizes the soil and more than one that controls the population of a certain predator results in ecosystem resilience.

This redundancy is crucial to supporting the long-term stability of the ecosystem because natural disturbances — such as fires, disease, or changing climate — sometimes can eliminate entire species unable to survive the change. With redundancy in environmental function, if one species dies off, another species that serves a similar role is more likely able to react and thrive after the disturbance. It then can take the place of the previously dominant species, thereby keeping the ecosystem resilient.

For example, consider a situation in which a prairie grassland ecosystem's main food-producing plant is destroyed by a fire. A plant species that was previously less abundant may be better suited to live in the new soil conditions, and therefore become the new dominant food-producing plant species serving the grassland. As long as the post-fire composition of plant species fills the same functional role as the pre-fire plant community, then the prairie will be able to survive the fire intact.

Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application ideas: Creating more nutrient-rich soil with higher crop diversity. Growing more diverse crops to act as a fail-safe if one crop fails. Maintaining long-term stability in agriculture, ecosystems or organizations by creating and supporting complementary diversity. Maintaining long-term stability of transportation systems by supporting complementary, but diverse, routes and transportation types. Maintaining long-term stability in industries filling similar market niches by creating and supporting complementarity and diversity. Maintaining long-term organizational stability by overlapping diversity of people and skills.

Industrial sector(s) interested in this strategy: Agriculture, forestry and fishing; wholesale and retail trade; transportation and storage; financial and insurance activities; administrative and support service activities.

This summary was contributed by AskNature volunteer Jennifer LawrenceIf you’re participating in the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Food Challenge, this collection offers initial inspiration. Look to related collections — such as Managing WaterManaging Energy, and Chemistry of Nature, among others — for inspiration into more specific food-related challenges.