Bees perform around 80% of all pollination worldwide, and support around $20 billion of crop production in the United States alone. Their numbers are in rapid decline. For over a decade bees have been disappearing in what National Geographic has coined the “colony collapse disorder” (30% of flying insects may die out altogether). Some regions have lost 90% of their bees.
Last year the US lost almost 40% of its domestic bees – a figure experts say is unsustainable. Preventing climate change is one way of restoring the balance. Finding technology-based solutions may be another. Edete Precision Technologies for Agriculture, an Israeli firm, has developed a mechanical solution that mimics the natural process of pollination and distribution. The company’s CEO and co-founder Eylam Ran talks food dependency, security and the $6bn almond market – where Edete is having its early success in California, which supplies 80% of the world’s almonds.
What was your inspiration for Edete?
I heard a lecture by a researcher in botany who is an expert on honeybees; specifically CCD (colony collapse disorder). As a mechanical engineer with an agriculture background I came to realize the absurdity of our food dependency on insects, and decided to find a technological solution to the problem – just as artificial insemination has changed the livestock breeding. My three partners and I founded the company after a six-month long survey of scientific literature along with market analysis.
Is artificial pollination something that’s difficult to communicate to investors?
It certainly was when we established the company more than 4 years ago. However, nowadays investors and many others are much more aware of the problem. In 2018 the UN announced a World Bee Day to be held annually on May 20. Since that there has been extensive news coverage of the pollination challenge, and the call for assistance by beekeepers and farmers has come to the forefront.
How serious is the challenge regarding the loss of pollinating bees?
Today, one-third of the food we eat depends on insect pollination, and primarily on honeybees. But honeybee population, the main agricultural pollinator, as well as that of other insects, are declining at an alarming rate and even disappearing altogether. This is placing our food supply chain and food diversity under tremendous pressure.
A lot of the minerals and vitamins we consume are derived from fruits and vegetables that are insect pollinated. I expect greater attention and resources will be allocated in the future to solve the pollination challenge, and that Edete’s artificial pollination technology will be a leading plan B for global agriculture.
Do you have major competition in the field?
The competition is divided into two main segments: one that focuses on helping insects and specifically honeybees to thrive, and the other that focuses on the replacement the dependency of food crops on honeybees with artificial pollination techniques.
We believe humanity should do everything in its power to preserve the insect population. However, global food security requires a technological solution to the problem as long as there is a need to increase the amount of land allocated for farming to support the increase in global population.
The solution has to take into account the natural habitat of insects and other animals, as well as the continued use of pesticides and herbicides, which are harmful to bees and insects.
Other competition in this field include companies that are developing mechanical blowers that either use electrostatic or non-electrostatic technology, robotic bees or drones, and botanical self-pollinating cultivars.
To the best of our knowledge all mechanical based solutions using robots or drones will require pure viable and germinable pollen, which are a long way from becoming a commodity. Mechanical blowers depend largely on existing agriculture machines, meant for different uses that have been converted for use in pollination. They are based on brute force and depend on the use of inefficient pollen consumption.
The biggest difference between Edete’s artificial pollination and insect pollination is the ability to guarantee yields. Unlike bees, Edete’s mechanical pollination works 24 hours a day and is not limited to daylight or by poor weather conditions. In addition, by using stored pollen, we can enable growers to eliminate the problem of cultivars’ bloom synchronization by ensuring the best compatible pollen for fertilization regardless of the timing of the bloom. Compared to other man-made solutions, Edete provides pollen that is pre-tested for germinanability which is not dispersed with the use of brute force and has also shown to have a positive impact on yields in field trials.
How important is it for Edete to roll out its solution in California?
California supplies more than 80% of the world’s almonds, which is the market Edete is focusing on initially. We will also be targeting the Australian almond market. In the future our plans call for entering other plants in the rosacea family including apples, pears, cherries, apricots, followed by sunflower, rapeseed and other insect dependent crops. Our mechanical pollinator is designed to pollinate a wide range of crops. The challenge is that the pollen production process needs to be adjusted and tested for each crop.