Biomimicry: How native ecosystems inspire resilience (2024)

Natural ecosystems have evolved to survive in many challenging landscapes. Over millions of years they have tried, tested, and optimised strategies for surviving droughts, floods, and plagues. Innovative farmers are learning from native ecosystems to design resilient landscapes which clean rivers, reverse climate change, and provide more stable food production.

Biomimicry has the potential to save millions of dollars in energy and resource use and provide the pathway for a cleaner, more climate-resilient future. It is the use of techniques, tried and tested by nature, to solve complex design problems. By drawing inspiration from natural analogues of design problems, we can find more reliable solutions, energy-efficient, andenvironmentally ‘cleaner’ than modern human technology.

Biomimicry is being used extensively in engineering. Examples include buildings which passively regulate temperature based on termite architecture principles, ship hulls which mimic the energy-saving nanostructure of shark skin and the Japanese bullet train – modelled on the aerodynamics of the kingfisher’s beak.

Some biomimetic applications are going further, from improving isolated designs of structures and processes, to revolutionising the design of whole systems. Agriculture is one system where the application of biomimicrycan inspire resilience, reduce water pollution and reverse climate change.

Many countries across the world are predicted to experience an increase in extreme events such as droughts and floods,as the effects of climate change worsen. As a result, agricultural resilience – the ability for farms to continue producing food despite extreme events – is becoming an increasinglyimportant factor in global food security. This is of particular concern for countries which already experience significant climatic variability, including major agricultural exporters such as the US, China, and South America.

Resilient food systems

When analysing how both nature and human innovation solve problems,Vincent et al.found that where human-made solutions use energy, biology solves the same problems using design.

Our current dominant agricultural systems conform to thishigh energy pattern.The most common method of agriculture involves applying large amounts of agrochemicals (i.e., pesticides and fertilisers, both of which are energetically expensive) to large-scale monocultures (single species systems). This is commonly known as industrial agriculture.

Farms using an industrial agricultural system typically have very little innate resilience. These farms follow a ‘boom and bust’ approach to production. They are designed to maximise yields in good years by creating ideal growing conditions (supplied by large quantities of industrial chemicals – e.g. synthetic fertilisers). However,these farms are vulnerablewhen conditions are anything less than ideal, such as during droughts or periods of heavy rainfall. Production booms beyond what is otherwise possible in a good year, but goes bust in bad years. In countries with variable climates this is problematic because bad years happen frequently.

Going bust in bad years doesn’t just reduce agricultural productivity; it hassignificant social implicationstoo. We are familiar with the results of industrial farming crashes in media coverage of starving stock, tight water restrictions and desperate farmers. Particularly inrural communities, we see increased poverty and loss of income, which impacts education, reduces access to services, and garners mistrust and doubt in government efficacy. Issues such as depression, relationship breakdowns, risk of domestic violence and suicide are exacerbated.

It seems all we can do in these crises is to provide more emergency financial relief. In doing so we treat agriculture as a mechanistic economic system. We reduce drought to a period of low income, to which the solution is money. Government drought relief packages spend millions of dollars transporting water and feed to drought-stricken areas, supplementing mental health services, and waiving farmers fees.

Emergency assistanceisimportant. However, we should couple subsidies with addressing systemic flaws that result in the need for emergency relief. We should adapt proactively, not only subsidise reactively. We need to treat farms not as mechanistic systems in need of more inputs, but as living systems that can cultivate resilience in their design.

Biomimetic agriculture

When designing resilient agricultural systems that thrive in variable landscapes, what better model is there than native ecosystems? Local ecosystems demonstrate strategies that allow them to persist through the climatic variability specific to a place. A growing number of farmers are mimicking these strategies, and their data tells a promising story.

In a good year industrial farms outproduce biomimetic farms, but in bad years (e.g. drought) biomimetic strategies are consistently more productive than their industrial counterparts. If we were to draw a caricature of the production of industrial vs biomimetic systems, they would look something like this:

Biomimicry: How native ecosystems inspire resilience (1)

Figure 2: Caricature biomimetic vs industrial production over time

So which methods produce more food overall? That depends on the balance of good and bad years. It is important to compare the productivity of different agricultural systems over a long period so that we can capture the long-term variability in climate that our farmers experience in reality and which affect overall food production.

Unfortunately, the typical duration of qualifications and funding means that research projects which compare the productivity of different agricultural methods typically run up to only three years. This has led to alack of scientific knowledgeon the long-term productivity of biomimetic and industrial methods of agriculture.

The fewlong-term comparisonsbetween biomimetic methods and industrial methods of farming (such as theRhodale Institute’s30+ year trial in the US) have shown that over the long term, farms that mimic the properties of natural ecosystems produce equivalent or more food in the long term, and also make better profits. This is because they arenot subject to the same crashesexperienced by industrial methods in bad years.

Australia provides a good example of biomimetic strategies in action. It has the most variable climate in the world, and the pressures exerted by frequent adverse conditions have incentivised innovation in agricultural resilience.

Case studies of Australian farmers demonstrate that by emulating strategies used by Australian ecosystems they:

– are making better profits due to reduced agrochemical (synthetic fertiliser and pesticide) needs

– have more stable year to year productivity

– are less affected during drought

– can bounce back from drought and high rainfall events more rapidly than before.

Biomimetic strategies

A snapshot of two biomimetic strategies being widely used:

A snapshot of two widely used biomimetic strategies :

1. Mimicking the absence of bare soil in natural ecosystems.

Continuous plant cover encourages water vapour to condense on leaves. This increases the amount of water available to plants. In a water-limited system, more water means greater productive capacity. Ground covered with plants also facilitates the creation of a microclimate where plants lose less moisture. So not only does this strategy ‘gather’ more water for plants, it also reduces water loss. Australian farmers are adopting this strategy used by native ecosystems to increase available water, (e.g. ‘pasture cropping’ methods).

2. Mimicking natural grazing regimes by using planned rotational grazing

In natural ecosystems, herbivores are moved around by predators and can’t stay in one place for long. This helps grasses regenerate more rapidly. Moving stock around regularly, and in drought decreasing stock numbers, or sending stock to distant, better-watered farms, mimics natural migratory behaviours of herbivores. This behaviour allows drought-affected vegetation to regenerate quickly with only small amounts of rain, making the effects of drought shorter.

These strategies show they can help provide more stable food production in the most variable climates in the world and flatten out the deep production troughs where industrial methods are failing. Many more opportunities exist to apply ecosystem strategies to agriculture and other kinds of land management, achieving design goals using techniques optimised by nature.

Reducing agricultural pollution of waterways

In the US, somefarmers in the Mississippi river basin designed their farms based on native perennial grasslands (prairies). They reaped economic rewards on an individual scale from reduced erosion and more naturally-occurring pollinator species. On a larger scale, these systems were more efficient at using nutrients, and therefore they reduced nutrients flowing into the Mississippi River. Excess agricultural nutrients have long been responsible for the infamous ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico. Greater uptake of biomimetic farming on a catchment scale can not only improve the resilience and livelihoods of farms but can also improve downstream water quality, aiding fishing and recreational industries on a larger scale.

Reversing climate change

Biomimetic farming also provides a solution to reduce the impacts of climate change. Of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide,24% come from agriculture and forestry. By increasing the amount of organic carbon stored in soil (a side effect of biomimetic practices), we can draw CO2from the atmosphere into soil. Having more carbon stored in soil is beneficial to soil fertility and productivity while also ameliorating the effects of climate change. Where current industrial agricultural practices dramatically deplete soil carbon content, investing in biomimetic agriculture can reverse this, taking agriculture from being a climate change contributor to a climate change solution.

Project Drawdownestimates that managing agricultural land biomimetically for ten or more years can store 25-60 tonnes of carbon per acre. Multiply that by the number of acres of farmland (which globally is over 12 billion), and it’s no wonder new means of agriculture are being explored as a solution to the climate crisis.


With a changing climate that holds more severe and frequent extreme events, our world needs to move toward more resilient food systems. To safeguard future food security and prevent further environmental degradation we must farm smarter, not harder. Using clever designs rather than energy-intensive methods of farming will allow us to meet our food production needs in an increasingly variable climate, whilst simultaneously reducing downstream pollution and, contributing to the reversal of climate change.

Biomimicry: How native ecosystems inspire resilience (2024)
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