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Looking to Nature in the Search for Global Soil Solutions

Ray of Hope Prize winners mimic Andean nurse plant to help restore depleted soils

Soil is the unsung-hero of our food system. We depend on it to grow the food we put in our bodies, yet we treat it poorly, compacting it with tractors, depleting it of nutrients, and filling it with chemicals. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, 25 percent of soil is degraded. Team BioNurse, a project of the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile, has come up with a creative way to help combat this degradation, one that turns to nature for inspiration.

photo of soil and sweet potatoesPhoto by US Department of AgricultureTeam BioNurse's nature inspired design helps address a global problem: soil degradation. 

An interdisciplinary team of seven that includes industrial designers, architects, and agronomists, Team BioNurse has designed a soil restoration mechanism that mimics the Yareta plant, a so-called “nurse” plant found in the harsh environment of the Andes. The resilient Yareta provides shelter for seedlings of other plants, protecting them from the elements and facilitating their establishment in the extreme mountain landscape. In doing so, this hardy plant paves the way for the succession of other, more delicate species. 

Team BioNurse designed a “BioPatch” that works the same way. Made of corn stalks and other biological materials, the BioPatch is planted with seedlings of plants that help restore soil health but which would struggle to grow in degraded soils. It nurtures these seedlings, providing them with the necessary nutrients and microbes to thrive under tough conditions, protecting them from wind and UV radiation, and directing water to their roots. The BioPatch is then placed on degraded agricultural fields, which, as BioNurse Team member Camilia Hernández points out, can also be “very harsh environments.” As the seedlings take root, they help amend the underlying soil.

photoname Photo courtesy of Team BioNurseThe BioPatch mimics the yareta plant, sheltering and nurturing seedlings
so that they can grow in depleted agricultural fields.

After one season, the BioPatch materials biodegrade, and after a year, the underlying soil becomes healthier and more productive. Hernández says the BioPatch also “integrates biodiversity and beauty into the fields.”

For this innovative solution Team BioNurse was awarded the first-ever Ray C. Anderson “Ray of Hope” Prize in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, at the Bioneers conference in Marin County, California last weekend. The international competition for nature-inspired solutions to global environmental problems comes with a $100,000 award.

The challenge is hosted by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, an organization that promotes innovative sustainability initiatives, and the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit that supports nature-inspired solutions to environmental problems. It is aimed at commercializing viable environmental solutions that embrace biomimicry — that is, designs that take inspiration from the natural world. This year’s competition was focused on food system issues.

“The judges were impressed with the way that the BioNurse team utilized biomimicry on multiple levels,” John A. Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, said in a statement. “Moreover, we believe in their potential to commercialize and scale the concept to achieve a significant impact in areas of the world where farming is limited due to poor soil.” 

In Chile, Team BioNurse’s winning design is currently being tested in agricultural fields. Hernandez believes the award money will help them scale up the project. She says the BioPatch has already received interest from local farmers and nurseries.

While the project was initially envisioned as a solution to soil degradation on Chilean fruit orchards, where farmers struggle to grow new trees in depleted, chemically-treated soils, Hernandez believes BioPatch can be adapted to fit different needs around the world.  

“We want to help farmers make the transition [to sustainable agriculture],” Hernández says. “I am encouraged that these solutions will make it easier, because we know it is very hard to have healthy soil and healthy food.”

Seven teams made it to the final stage of the biomimicry competition, including a group of high school students from Thailand who designed a woven chamber, modeled after carnivorous plants, that lures and captures protein-rich insects; a team from Michigan and Central America that developed a low-cost aquaponics system; and an Oregon-based team that created a novel field drainage system that returns nutrients to the soil so that they are not lost in runoff. 

All seven teams participated in a year-long accelerator program during which they developed working prototypes of their designs.

“These solutions prove that we can feed ourselves in ways that purify water, repair soil, and lift communities,” Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, said in a statement. “Biomimicry tends to lead to multifunctional solutions, ones that multiply goodness.” (Read our interview with Benyus.)

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is associate editor of Earth Island Journal. In addition to her work with the Journal, her writing has appeared in Civil Eats, Alternet,, and Truthout, among other outlets. She also holds a law degree from Berkeley Law, where she studied environmental law and policy.

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