Can Technology Really Help End the Biodiversity Crisis?

“The apple trees were beginning to bloom, but no bees buzzed among the blossoms,” Rachel Carson wrote 60 years ago in the first chapter of silent spring. She imagined a future city with no birds, no insects, no flowers, just disease and death. The reason? All around life has been poisoned by pesticides. But what if, instead of the buzzing of bees, there were hundreds of buzzing drones instead – using artificial intelligence to do the work of pollinating apple trees?

The famed American conservationist and author’s premonition of pesticide-fueled climate degradation, where pollinators no longer roam, is getting closer and closer. Can technology offer a solution to our growing biodiversity crisis?

Every once in a while, a headline will scream about the arrival of robo-bees, with the vision of a dystopian future where drones, not insects, will “buzz” from flower to flower. In 2018, West Virginia University in the United States developed the BrambleBee, which pollinates plants using a robotic arm. Israeli tech company Arugga claims to be the first company to market a robot capable of replicating buzz pollination in tomato greenhouses. ‘Polly’, who doesn’t look like a bee at all, has put to work in Finland, where long dark winter days prevent bees from pollinating crops and therefore must be supplemented by hand pollination. The robot will now do the hard work and it also collects plant health data, allowing farmers to make informed treatment decisions.

A more recent example can be found in a joint venture between the University of Stirling in Scotland and the University of Massachusetts. They received funding to build tiny robots capable of replicating the hum of pollinating bees. Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin, associate professor of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Stirling, told Investigate Europe that the aim of the project is not to replace natural pollinators. “We’re not looking for a mechanical way to replace what thousands of bee species around the world are doing.” Rather, he says, the goal is “to understand why it’s important to keep different types of bees.”

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A prototype of Arugga’s ‘Poly’ pollination robot.

Bee conservation is a growing concern. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s most essential food crops are pollinated by bees, according to the UN, but numbers are declining as industrial agriculture expands and widespread pesticide use persists. European beekeepers have warned that the number of colonies has decreased over the past 15 years, while experts have estimated that nearly one in 10 wild bee species is threatened with extinction in Europe.

Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, agrees with Vallejo-Martian that robot bees can never replace the real thing. “Real bees pollinate very well, and they have for 120 million years,” he says. “So why the hell do we think we can do better by building little robots? It’s crazy. But people take it seriously as an option.

Not all plants that are crops would be robot pollinated, he adds, when the biggest thing insects do is actually not pollination, but recycling. They recycle any kind of dead material, which Goulson says a robot bee wouldn’t do.

Trillions of robot bees would be needed to replace all natural pollinators, according to Alan Dorin of Monash University in Australia, a process he describes as unrealistic and economically impossible for most farmers. Robot bees are harmful to the environment to create and dispose of, Dorin says, and they can pose serious risks to wildlife.

assist not replace

Robo-bees may not be buzzing in our fields anytime soon, but with the global agricultural robotics market should be worth $20 billion by 2025, technology-assisted agriculture that helps the environment is poised to take off.

The UK-based Small Robot Company (SRC) hopes farmers will use AI and robotics to work with the environment and make food production more sustainable. They hope to replace heavy tractors with lighter robots that are more environmentally friendly and help farmers reduce costs and inputs such as herbicides and fertilizers.

They currently have three robot models – Tom, Dick and Harry – that monitor, process and plant crops autonomously. Tom, for example, scans the field to create a map showing where the plants are and what each one needs. This data is fed to an AI advisory model that creates a treatment map advising farmers on what action to take.

Credit: CBC
Small Robot Company’s “Tom” robot.

CRS said herbicide applications can be reduced by up to 80 percent with technology and it is ready to deploy the products to 50 UK farms later this year. A 2019 crowdfunding campaign raised £1m, much of which the company says came from farmers, and support for the technology appears to be growing. Tom Jewers was drawn to the prospect of reducing chemicals on his Suffolk farm. “The ability to treat only the plants that really need it is a game-changer,” he told Farmers Weekly.

Amid rising world prices, the motivations of farmers in the UK – and all over Europe – reducing the use of chemicals is both economical and environmental. “With the cost of inputs rising, farmers and growers want to reduce their reliance on a range of products, including pesticides,” said Dr Dawn Teverson of industry affiliate group Linking. Environment And Farming (LEAF) to IE via email.

Experimenting with agricultural techniques is a centuries-old tradition. It was in 1843 at Rothamsted Research, one of the oldest agricultural research institutes in the world, that the first seeds of wheat were planted in the Broadbalk field in Hertfordshire, England. These seeds were to become Rothamsted’s classic long-term experiments, laying the foundations of modern scientific agriculture and establishing the principles of crop nutrition.

Since then, Broadbalk has been the subject of continuous scientific study and helps scientists understand how fertilizers can improve crop yield. This is just one of the ways science is used to improve food production. Rothamsted plant pathologist Dr Kevin King works to develop early warning systems for farmers of fungal pathogens and helps prevent ‘unnecessary fungicide sprays’.

Credit: Juliet Ferguson
The first wheat seeds were planted in the Broadbalk field in 1843,

Fungal pathogens can wreak havoc on crops. King and his colleagues are developing an air monitoring device to measure the amount of spores in the air. This will help them understand how the pathogen behaves, and therefore how best to manage and control it. They pass this information on to farmers with “the idea being that if a farmer or grower can know exactly what’s going on in their field at any given time,” says King. “Then they can take preventative measures to try to manage the disease.”

Credit: Juliet Ferguson
An insect trap at Rothamsted Research, one of the oldest agricultural research institutes in the world.

The Rothamsted estate is dotted with various insect traps, part of the Insect Survey overseen by Dr James Bell. The work his team is doing now has its origins in a survey started in 1964. They use two types of traps, one at 12.2 meters to take the landscape view of insects flying at that height and the shorter traps which give a more granular view of behavior. . As with fungal spore research, these traps are used to predict pest threats and produce newsletters for farmers. Even since their spray-friendly origins in the 1960s, they were put in place to reduce the use of insecticides.

“In 1964, we believed that if we communicated with farmers, we could actually change their behavior, and that’s exactly what we’re doing today with forecasts and data,” says Bell.

But changing behavior is not going to be easy. Investigate Europe last survey laid bare the problem of pesticides in Europe and the resistance of farmers, industry and some politicians support pesticide reduction laws and data collection. Meanwhile, the charity Food Watch recently described a self-reinforcing cycle of pesticide use that creates fragile agricultural production systems where farmers are increasingly dependent on chemicals.

It is not only the diversity of plants, insects and birds that is threatened by the current agricultural system. The same goes for the farmers themselves, critics say.

“We see fewer and fewer farmers. They have less and less profit,” said Green MEP Bas Eickhout recently. “We see that our rural areas are under threat. On top of that, we see the impact of climate change on our farmers. We see the loss of biodiversity.

It is likely that technology has a role to play in helping farmers escape this cycle, but it is a small part of a larger need for system change and not a replacement for what nature currently does and done for millions of years. Free.

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