In this series, we’re interviewing the world’s foremost thought leaders in biomimicry and sustainability to explore nature-based solutions to the world’s most pressing climate change issues.
With each interview, we’ll delve into the top three areas where climate and sector leaders think we should intervene to affect the most change. We’ll also take a deeper look at the most promising solutions on the horizon, and explore where these thought leaders think the next big opportunity will be.
Look for new interviews on our Asking Nature blog.
Q: What’s one (surprising) thing about climate change and our food system that most people DON’T know?
Anna: A lot of people are surprised that there is such a big connection between our food systems and climate change. Our food system is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions: nearly one third of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions come either directly or indirectly from food production. But the other piece of the puzzle that surprises people is that the food system can be a key part of the solution to the crisis. We know how to reduce emissions from the sector, right now, today. And we know how to make agriculture more resilient to a changing climate.
Q: What are the top three areas in our food system where we need to intervene in order to truly impact climate change?
Anna: We need to intervene in the “where,” the “what,” and the “how” of our global food production models. The “where”: we know that there are key regions globally that are essential to protect to prevent runaway climate change: our vital rainforests in South America and peatlands rich in carbon in Indonesia and Malaysia. We know that rainforests are the lungs of our planet; we need them intact for biodiversity, for atmospheric regulation, to maintain stable precipitation patterns. So we need to be alarmed when we hear about huge incursions into the Amazon rainforest to make way for monoculture soy plantations. We also need to raise the alarm when we hear about palm oil production for processed foods or biofuels in Malaysia and Indonesia. There are places that are well suited for certain types of food production, and other areas that are vital to protect.
The “what”: we know that certain foods have much larger environmental impact. For instance, by and large, producing plant-based foods can be significantly less resource-intensive than producing industrially raised livestock. But we also know that producing biodiverse foods is a key part of sustainable food production. So we need to reignite our dedication to biodiversity.
The “how”: a huge reason the food sector is such a climate culprit has to do with industrial farming techniques, from energy-intensive synthetic fertilizer use to the incredibly polluting factory farms used in industrial livestock operations. By and large, if well managed, grassfed beef is less impactful than beef finished in confined animal feeding operations. We also know that organic agriculture can reduce energy use and on-farm greenhouse gas emissions. This is well documented.
It’s critical to look at this question from these three angles–the where, what, and how. These are the three lenses I like to use to address the question of food and climate impacts.
Q: Is there a nature-inspired solution that makes you hopeful?
Anna: The body of work from farmers and researchers about the power of agroecological practices is inspiring. I’m excited about the flourishing of practices that derive soil fertility from working with soil, and ecological pest management firmly rooted in tapping nature for pest control. What gives me hope is the growing number of such solutions … that are better for farmworkers, eaters, and certainly better for the climate.
Agroecology in Myanmar. Image courtesy of TheSolutionsJournal.com
Q: How do we get more people involved in addressing climate change issues?
Anna: It’s important to help people understand the root causes of a crisis and identify the actions we can take as individuals and as a society to address those causes. And when it comes to food, the actions abound. I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna, here: I don’t think it will be easy. But in uniting the food and climate conversation, we can perceive a range of actions we can take as individuals and society that could make a huge difference. We can make conscious choices as food consumers, [in terms of] where we put our purchasing dollars. We can develop policies for incentivizing farmers to adopt more sustainable practices.
We can also see the links between other policy campaigns and climate in new ways. Taking on the soda industry through sugary drink taxes may not seem to have anything to do with climate, but it does. If these campaigns reduce the land used to grow sugar–an ingredient with no nutritional value–that has climate benefits as well.
My theme song on this is that food is a culprit in climate change and also that food is part of the solution. Casualty, culprit, cure — the three Cs. We need to help people see that farmers are on the frontlines of the crisis; they are among those most impacted. We need to develop policy and action to help farmers who are suffering and to help them develop new strategies that reduce their impact and improve their resilience. We also want people to see that farmers aren’t the adversaries, but really are the source of potential positive change.
Q: Where could our Biomimicry Global Design Challenge teams really make an impact, given how much we know about what we need to do in the food production space to reverse climate change?
Anna: There are so many places biomimicry could make a big impact! Challenge #1: Design teams, for instance, could look at synthetic fertilizers and its environmental impact and explore new strategies to improve soil fertility. There are some solutions out there but huge room for innovation. Challenge #2: Design teams could explore all the potential biomimetic solutions to weed, pest, and fungus control. There’s huge room for innovation there. Challenge #3: There’s huge room for innovation around strategies to reduce food waste. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 30 to 50 percent of all food is wasted. In the developing world, it’s often the result of losses between harvest and sale, sometimes having to do with access to market or lack of storage technologies. There have been some innovations in this space–such as sustainable packaging that preserves food longer to solutions in how to turn food scraps into value added products–but there’s a lot of potential there.
Challenge #4 is around packaging and preservation. As more and more food systems globally become more disconnected from on-the-farm food production, and we see growth in supermarkets, the more we are seeing an explosion of wasteful and polluting packaging. This has a huge impact on climate and on waste in general. So I can imagine huge innovation in this space.
Image courtesy of Dirt to Dinner
About Anna Lappé
Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, a respected advocate for sustainability and justice along the food chain, and an advisor to funders investing in food system transformation. A recipient of the James Beard Leadership Award, Anna is the co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to more than a dozen others. Anna’s work has been translated internationally and featured in The New York Times, Gourmet, Oprah Magazine, among many other outlets.
Named one of TIME’s “eco” Who’s-Who, Anna is a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and the Small Planet Fund with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé. She is currently the founder and director of Real Food Media, a collaborative communications initiative based at Corporate Accountability International.
With her team at Real Food Media, Anna partners with grassroots organizations around the country to catalyze creative storytelling to inspire, educate, and grow the movement for sustainable food and farming. Since its founding in 2012, Real Food Media has created the world’s largest short films competition on food with pop-up festivals around the world, collaborated with the award-winning StoryCorps to elevate voices of food workers, produced powerful mythbusting videos viewed more than one million times and more.
Ms. Lappé also served as a judge in our Biomimicry Global Design Challenge.
Megan: What’s one surprising thing about climate change that most people DON’T know?
Michael: I always find it kind of absurd when I meet some property consultants in London who insist that buildings have to be air-conditioned and that increasing temperatures will make that even more the case. When they do that, I point them to the example of the Eastgate Centre, the office building that’s pretty close to the equator and works without any air conditioning.
The Eastgate Centre. Image: Kiva
Megan: Within the built environment, what are the top three areas where we need to intervene in order to truly impact climate change?
Michael: A lot of people would argue that it’s refurbishing existing buildings, and I think that is a pretty strong case because in the U.K. we only rebuild about 1 percent of our building stock every year, which means a hell of a lot of the buildings that will be standing by 2040 or 2050 are the ones that already exist. And by 2040 or 2050, we need to almost completely decarbonize our economies and our built environment. So that makes it clear just how big the challenge is, and of course, the sooner we do it the better. So that’s definitely one.
The context for which we are designing is becoming more and more demanding of radical change.
The other thing is, I’m constantly frustrated that the pace of change is so slow. We have nearly all the solutions we need to make buildings much more efficient for new build or existing buildings, and yet this stuff is just not getting implemented. And that’s a serious problem. If anything the construction industry in the UK is getting more conservative, when the context for which we are designing is becoming more and more demanding of radical change.
The whole aspect of transport and the public realm in cities needs some urgent rethinking. That can, and should, have a big impact on climate change, and thankfully, most of the changes we need to make will actually improve people’s quality of life as well. So it shouldn’t be too big an ask to bring about those kind of changes. And of course the kind of changes I’m referring to are shifting away from single-occupancy private cars towards much more sustainable forms of transport — walking, cycling, and forms of mass transit.
Megan: Is there a nature-inspired solution out there that makes you hopeful, related to climate change?
Michael: Well, one of the projects we’ve been working on, which is perhaps the most radical in a way, is one that’s called the Biorock Pavilion. The starting point for that was the Vostok ice-core graphs. The part that everyone focuses on is the bit showing how CO2 and temperature have risen exponentially since the start of the industrial revolution. That’s the bit that people tend to focus on, for good reason, because it does look alarming. But in many ways I find the earlier part of the graph more interesting, because that shows how for nearly half a million years, and probably for much longer still, the CO2 and temperature levels varied within a fairly steady band, which raises the question of — what is the controlling mechanism that used to maintain that equilibrium?
The conclusion you could draw from [James Lovelock’s Gaia theory] is that the way biology would solve the challenge of climate change is to make more things from atmospheric carbon.
The most persuasive explanation I’ve heard is the one that is related to James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which says that it is coccolithophores and other marine microorganisms that have boomed during periods of higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations. So they make their skeletons partly out of carbon in the form of calcium carbonate dissolved in the ocean. Because they’ve got quite short lives and they fall to the ocean floor as what’s called “ocean rain” when they die, they build up layers of limestone, and by doing that they transfer carbon from the atmosphere into the lithosphere and restore the balance. The conclusion you could draw from that is that the way biology would solve the challenge of climate change is to make more things from atmospheric carbon.
Inspiration for Biorock Pavilion
So we’ve been looking quite a bit at the idea of how you can grow materials. Wood is an obvious example. But biorock appealed to us because it allows for greater control of the forms that you can create. It’s a way of growing structures in seawater using electrodeposition of minerals. It’s mainly calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide. And it’s simple — you put a steel frame in the seawater, you pass a very low-level electric current through it, perfectly safe for wildlife, and you get fairly rapid deposition of minerals on that steel frame. After about a year, it can be 20–25 mm thick and it can be as strong as reinforced concrete. So we’ve proposed growing a whole building that way.
We’re also looking at other ways of making materials out of atmospheric carbon. Some of the things that Neri Oxman is doing at MIT are very interesting, basically 3D printing with biologically-derived polymers. If we could really scale that up as a proposition, then we would be doing what we need to be doing, which is taking carbon out of the atmosphere and turning it into building materials.
Megan: So the Biorock Pavilion is something you’ve made using the mineral deposition technology?
Michael: Not yet. We experimented with Biorock in our Sahara Forest Project in Qatar where we grew some structural elements. And we’ve done a design for the Biorock Pavilion, but we haven’t gotten as far as actually doing any prototyping work yet.
Megan: Going back to something you said earlier — basically, I think you were referring to the fact that we also need a shift in mindset — the science is there but you’re frustrated that we aren’t implementing things more rapidly. Do you think there is a role for biomimicry in encouraging implementation of existing solutions?
Michael: Yes, I do, and probably in a number of ways. But the way that comes most immediately to mind is the way that biomimicry helps tell persuasive stories. And when I say that, I don’t mean that in any kind of belittling way at all. Telling stories is becoming increasingly important, or at least the importance is becoming increasingly apparent. We’ve seen in recent years that there are a lot of people who just aren’t interested in data. You can talk to them about numbers until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t actually change their minds. You need to communicate on a slightly different level. What I’ve found can be very useful about biomimicry is you can start off with a story about a biological organism that does something pretty fantastic, and then you can show how you can translate that solution into something that suits human needs. So one example would be, if I were to get up in front of an audience of people and say, “Yeah, this thing’s called the Sahara Forest Project, and we thought we would make water in the desert and turn the desert green and make energy” and so on, I think most people would be crossing their arms and looking at their watches and thinking, “How long is this guy on for?” Whereas if I start with describing how the fog-basking beetle harvests water, then people are immediately grabbed and they’re leaning forward thinking, “Well, if a beetle can do it then we ought to be able to do it because humans are ingenious,” right? So I’ve found that biomimicry can be very useful for grabbing people’s attention and then getting them over a kind of skepticism threshold so that they are receptive to a new way of looking at things.
Neri Oxman with 3D-printed material. Image: Architizer
Megan: I think you just addressed this in a small way, in terms of helping people get over some skepticism and possibly thinking about doing things in a new way, but do you have any advice on how to get more people involved in addressing climate change issues? We could also limit it to your sphere, how to we get more people in the built environment engaging with climate change issues?
Michael: I always try to get people excited about positive possibilities, rather than getting them depressed about gloomy realities. In truth we need a bit of both. But, at least in this country, people have heard all of the gloomy stuff. They know that biodiversity is plummeting. They know that climate change is happening. And what we need is a much more lively conversation about solutions. In my talks and when I teach students and so on, I always try to get them to think positively about how you can shape the future. So rather than thinking about the future as something that just happens to you, think about it as something you really can shape. A bit like the way Hans Rosling said you should be neither an optimist or pessimist, because both of those positions imply some sense of inevitability. What you should be is a serious possibilist. You should decide on the kind of future you want and then you set about creating it. Be deliberate about shaping the future. I think that kind of call to action does address one of the problems that a lot of people — this is less true of students, but still some students — are rather lackadaisical when it comes to grabbing hold of something and implementing it.
Biomimicry can be very useful for grabbing people’s attention and then getting them over a kind of skepticism threshold so that they are receptive to a new way of looking at things.
Megan: Along those lines, we do work with a lot of young people who are very excited about shaping possibilities. But they don’t always know how to get past or work through or stay excited in the face of doing things in a very different way and becoming young inventors or young entrepreneurs. Do you have any particular advice for young biomimics?
Michael: In the second edition of my book [Biomimicry in Architecture], I did include an expanded sort of primer on how to actually apply biomimicry. One of the things I say to students, and to architects, is when you’re doing these biomimetic approaches, you can run into difficulties, particularly if you’re trying to mimic ecosystem levels. It can get really complicated, and there’s often a strong temptation to just go back to something that is simpler and more familiar. I’ve noticed this particularly with ecosystem models, where you’re trying to get a number of different elements to be synergized, so the output for one becomes the input for something else. You’ve actually got quite a lot of interconnected flows and interdependencies, and sometimes it’s quite difficult to see what’s going to happen if one link in the chain gets broken and so on. There’s a lovely quotation from an author called Ben Okri who said, “Adversity is not the end of a story, but where there is courage and conviction, it’s the start of a new story, a richer one than existed before.” So if you run into difficulties, I always encourage people to try to apply the same level of ingenuity and imagination as you did at the start rather than feeling defeated. Think about what you can add to the system to solve the problem rather than simplifying it.
A good example of this would be the Biorock story. On Sahara Forest Project in Qatar, one of the key inputs to the whole system is seawater. We were told that our seawater pipe would get encrusted with scale very quickly, and our industrial partner said that they would have to use large quantities of bleach to keep the pipes clean. We thought that sounded insane, but they were serious about this being a problem. So we thought about this. The scale is not a problem per se, it’s quite a hard, useful material. It’s just forming in the wrong location. So we proposed the idea of actually growing structural elements in the sea pipe that is supplying the project using biorock. That would take the scale out of the seawater and it would accumulate on these elements of steel structure rather than on the pipe itself. Then the seawater within the pipe downstream would be slightly more acidic, which would be enough to prevent scale formation on the rest of the pipe.
Think about what you can add to the system to solve the problem rather than simplifying it.
The serendipitous discovery was that the Biorock process also releases very small amounts of chlorine into the water, enough to suppress biofouling, which was another one of our concerns about the pipes getting clogged. There was something very nice about being able to grow elements to expand the project within the pipe that is supplying the project. And it showed that by being imaginative about problem solving, we were able to add a significant new element to the system.
About Michael Pawlyn
Michael Pawlyn established Exploration in 2007 and has built a reputation as a thought leader in biomimicry.
He has lectured internationally on biomimicry and innovative approaches to sustainability. In 2007 Michael Pawlyn delivered a talk at Google’s annual ‘Zeitgeist’ conference and, in 2011, became one of only a small handful of architects to have a talk posted on TED.com.
In the same year, his book “Biomimicry in Architecture” was published by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Prior to setting up the company Michael Pawlyn worked with Grimshaw for ten years and was central to the team that radically re-invented horticultural architecture for the Eden Project. He was responsible for leading the design of the Warm Temperate and Humid Tropics Biomes and the subsequent phases. He initiated the Grimshaw environmental management system resulting in the company becoming the first firm of European architects to achieve certification to ISO14001.