A post by Brendan Joy, a student on our MSc. in Public Policy and Human Development, who just won a place on a social enterprise programme in Ireland. NB, the next deadline for applications to our UN-backed double-degree Master’s programme is 15 July 2020.
Bees and other pollinators like butterflies are declining globally, their numbers now in freefall. Climate change, habitat loss, industrialised agriculture, and the use of harmful chemicals form a deadly cocktail that threatens their survival. Yet one fact is finally dawning on policymakers: that the stability of ecosystems and human societies depends on these tiny flying creatures.
The costs are not just environmental. The need for pollination services is growing five times faster than beekeepers’ ability to keep up, and evidence from numerous studies indicates the staggering scale of our economic reliance on pollinators – worth over US$150 billion. If ‘Beedom’ were a country it would be the 56th richest on earth, larger than the economies of Ghana, Hungary or Kuwait.
The reasons for this are clear, if not obvious. By variety, more than 85% of food crops depend on pollinators, including our most valuable crops, our most nutritious foods, and 90% of our dietary sources of Vitamin C. One tonne of food borne of animal-mediated pollination is five times more valuable than food that requires no pollination.
Agricultural demand for pollination services is growing five times faster than ecosystems and beekeepers can supply them. Part of this demand comes from European Energy policy, which increasingly focuses on biofuels, drawn from canola among others – and crops like canola can gain, or lose, as much as 30% of yield and quality depending on levels of pollination. This holds true across a variety of crops, where yield can drop by up to 90% without the help of bees.
Increasing pollinator visits to a field of crops translates into more money for farmers at harvests, better quality food (which cuts food waste), and more pollen for the bees. It is therefore in the interest of our ecosystems, our agriculture and our societies to reverse the trend of pollinator decline.
The first step is to gain an accurate picture of the numbers of pollinators. To do this we need more data. We need to estimate what their numbers are, and compare environments that help them with environments that harm them. When we make changes we need to know if they are working. Current methods are time consuming, expensive and difficult to scale. We rely on researchers, experts and ecological consultancy firms to carry out surveys in the field with limited time and financing. As a result datasets can be years apart, with interim reporting carried out by volunteer citizen scientists.
Stronger together, learning together
AgriBee is an automated wildlife camera based on computer vision and Internet of Things IoT) technology. The device consists of a camera, computer processor, 4G Internet connection, a battery pack, and solar panel. AgriBee devices are placed in selected areas throughout a crop plantation, recording pollinator visits. The video footage from the camera is relayed through the computer processor where the data is analysed in real-time, identifying pollinator species by taxonomy and codifying observations in datasets.
Working alone, an AgriBee camera – indeed any such camera – has very limited utility. But thanks to IoT technology our devices can connect with each other, and a central server, to provide networked observational data. In other words, one camera on one farm is only so useful, but having hundreds of cameras across hundreds of farms provides a much richer picture. AgriBee data can then be cross-referenced with various other datasets, such as national weather reports, to increase the power of analysis.
Information is relayed in real time to the AgriBee app on farmers’ phones, giving hourly, daily, weekly and monthly breakdowns of pollinator visits to their field of crops. The app also provides a ready-made social information network for any connected farmer. For example, each farm’s pollinator health can be contrasted with data from all other farms on the network. If six farmers are connected and growing the same crop, pollinator visits can be compared to rank farms from most to least ‘healthy’. A messaging function within the app also enables knowledge sharing, where farms that are doing better can share good practice with farms that may be struggling. For example:
Farmer A is growing strawberries along with farmers B, C and D. Farmer D is consistently recording pollinator visits in much higher numbers than the others. At the end of the season farmer D has a bigger harvest per acre with better quality fruit. The other farmers notice this. They ask what farmer D is doing differently. He tells them he has planted wildflower strips along the edges of the field. He has also set aside 200 square meters for trees to grow and provide habitat for solitary bees. Insect hotels are placed around the farm to give shelter for solitary pollinators. Farmers A, B and C take note and next season they employ the same methods – with roughly equal reward.
By creating a decentralised network of analysis among farmers, knowledge can be shared easily. Giving accurate and frequent reports on the health of pollinator ecosystems that their crops depend on will allow them to make changes and see returns in real time. Creating a healthy habitat for pollinators to thrive, farmers can capitalise in terms of their production quality and quantity.
Shifting mindsets with social entrepreneurship
When I started the MPP back in September I had never heard of Social Entrepreneurship. Fast forward nine months, and I have come out with a place on a social enterprise development programme, back home in Ireland.
This is thanks to our wonderful, critical and impassioned lecturers. In tutorials they would constantly make connections between the real-world problems of our thesis topics and the content we were learning. It was engaging, and allowed us to channel the topics of our dissertations through our assignments all the way to solution design. The course shifted our mindsets via real-world interdisciplinary approaches.
As students, we progressed academically but also became more constructively critical, more creative and more capable – at a time of great uncertainty. For that, all credit is due to everyone who made Social Entrepreneurship and Public Policy a reality.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Pexels / M. Zomer