To Bee, or Not to Be: How innovation in Agricultural Tech Moves Business Toward Sustainability
By Eileen Creighton
To some people, the recent disappearance of bees in the spring might seem like a blessing. With bees patrolling the grass, we feel hypervigilant about enjoying the weather barefoot. However, to others, the disappearance marks the beginning of an agricultural disaster. Bees pollinate ¾ of major food crops—without bees, food prices will soar, access to fresh produce will become limited, and the health of the public will suffer. The total U.S. crop value dependent on pollinators is estimated to exceed $15 billion. The global collapse of bee colonies alarms ecologists and economists alike and there is no shortage of doomsday rhetoric from experts about a bee-less planet. However, when a crisis looms, especially at the expense of large commercial enterprises, technological solutions will emerge to solve the pollination problem. Recently, Walmart took out 46 patents for innovative technology that might save the future of farming in light of the potential bee extinction.
In 2017, U.S. beekeepers lost 33% of their bees. These pollinators are suffering severe population losses in an event called Colony Collapse Disorder. This phenomenon stems from several environmental factors that influence bees’ survivability. For example, pesticides called Neonicotinoids are killing healthy bees that would otherwise help to pollinate large produce fields. Although farmers’ efforts to cut back on pesticides, climate change is also contributing to the bees disappearing. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), increasing temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns are causing flowers to bloom earlier in the year. By the time bees return during the spring, the flowers are gone, and the food source of the bees is diminished. Bee habitats are also destroyed with by development and building. Urbanization affecting the bee population come not only with the expansion of cities into their more bee-hospitable surroundings, but with the maintenance of public urban spaces. U.S. Agricultural Research Service Entomologist Jim Cane says, “Imagine you are a bee attempting to navigate an urban landscape. If you are one of the many species that needs bare ground for nesting, you’re out of luck, since city soils that have not been paved over or obliterated by buildings are often covered by dense turf or pounded down and impenetrable due to human foot traffic. Flower patches must be within flying distance because you need to return to your nest several times a day carrying pollen and nectar – a task made all the more difficult by the fragmented nature of urban green spaces. Even if you are a diminutive bee that can fulfill all your needs in a small area, your nest may be so far from those of other bees that inbreeding and, eventually, local extinction are inevitable.”
Without bees, or other natural pollinators, plants cannot produce fruit properly or reproduce. In the U.S., ¾ of our major food crops require pollinators to reproduce. 80-95% of plants in their natural habitats require pollinators. As the bee population declines, so do the rates of success in fruit production in plants, limiting the amount of food available to feed the public.
Research in nutrition continues to point to the benefits of a diverse, plant-based diet. If plants are unable to produce fruit, or unable to carry seeds, the average U.S. citizen will have less access to a wide range of fruits and vegetables and their health will suffer. Plants that support a well-balanced diet require pollination, including blueberries, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, and avocados. These plants provide vitamins, antioxidants, potassium, and fiber—key nutrients needed to support the healthy functioning of the body’s vital organs.
In 2016, Walmart vowed to reduce carbon emissions in its supply chain by 2030 by a gigaton, or 1 billion metric tons. Naming the initiative Project Gigaton, Walmart proposed a strategy demonstrating its roadmap for reducing emissions and achieving sustainable farming techniques. This past weekend, Walmart revealed it has patented several different technologies, at the focal point of which, are robot “bee” drones, that will support the pollination of plants for the worldwide hypermarket, to promote its grocery delivery service. Groceries currently make up 56% of Walmart’s revenue and Walmart is looking to expand its delivery to over 40% of U.S.
Bee-like drones have existed for years. Development of prototypes at Harvard School of Engineering and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineers have been working on Autonomous Flying Microrobots, or “RoboBees,” to pollinate crops and identify pests. The Wyss Institute Website claims that their bees will potentially be able to pollinate crops, perform search and rescue missions, perform surveillance tasks, and monitor climate and weather. Walmart’s recent patents include ones for the bee drones, delivery, logistics, and warehouse inventory. If successful, Walmart’s pollination innovation would save money for production and preserve resources. Robot bees could pollinate thousands of crops, identify pests that could threaten harvest, and deliver insecticides more precisely for farmers, reducing the pollution caused by fertilizers. As part of Walmart’s sustainable efforts, these patents clearly seek to serve the greater good. By ensuring that the production of food does not meet challenges due to the irresponsibility of the commercial agriculture industry, Walmart can continue to provide fresh produce at an affordable price. Walmart’s mission, according to their Sustainability Website, states that the health of its patrons is at the forefront of their efforts.
To create more sustainable business practices, companies must consider not only the livelihood of people, but also the ecosystem. The sudden disappearance of bees has adversely affected agriculture, threatening our health, food supply, and wallets. Bee drones are a promising solution for pollination in commercial agriculture, and Walmart has acted to ensure that fresh produce will remain accessible and affordable. Beyond its corporate mission, Walmart’s sustainability efforts bring great value to both the community it serves commercially and the environment at large. By patenting robo-pollinators, Walmart’s initiative may impact farmers, the Government, and the ecosystem with its innovation, helping crops to thrive and relying on fertilizers and insecticides more judiciously, and preserving resources for future generations.