Pollination, an essential yet seldom-considered element of the agribusiness ecosystem, is fast becoming a multibillion-dollar global industry. But despite agribusiness being such an integral part of Brazil’s economy, pollination remains comparatively undersized.

While some fear that increasingly lax pesticide restrictions and a move towards monoculture farming could threaten vital species, experts argue that Brazilian producers might be facing huge and unexpected opportunities if they handle pollination correctly.

Agribusiness retains supreme economic importance in Brazil. Domestic policy has focused on strategically growing the industry since the 1970s. Bumper harvests are credited with boosting the country’s economy to a level that it was able to drag itself out of the deepest recession in its history in mid-2017. Of the ten Brazilians to make it onto Forbes’s 2017 rich list, four were co-owners or CEOs of companies invested in industries related to agribusiness.

Dependence on agribusiness means dependence on pollinators

Although Brazilian meat and poultry products constitute a significant amount of total exports—accounting for 7 percent of the country’s total—pollination-dependent agriculture products are worth more than double this. Combined vegetable and foodstuff exports account for BRL 64 billion, according to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Overall, that means these products make up 30 percent of Brazil’s exports.

Nor is it just exports: small-holdings and family farmers take up almost a quarter of all farming land and produce almost 70 percent of the food that ends up on Brazilian tables. And although experts were disappointed by the sector’s growth in 2018, the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock of Brazil (CNA) says that agribusiness contributed 23.5 percent to the country’s GDP in 2017 and optimistically predicted 3 percent growth for 2019.

“Pollinators are of vital importance not only for our exports but also for the production of food essential for the quality of life of Brazilians,” said Professor Carlos Joly of the State University of Campinas and coordinator of the Brazilian Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BPBES), to Brazilian newspaper Valor.

The agribusiness sector is not ignorant of the importance of pollination technologies. Brazil spent as much as BRL 43 billion on pollination during 2018, according to a new report from BPBES and the Brazilian Plant-Pollinator Interaction Network (REBIPP). The same report draws on research that demonstrates not only that natural pollination directly contributes to a greater volume of produce, but also that said produce also contains higher levels of micronutrients, such as vitamin A, calcium and folic acid.

“It’s practically the same value as was invested in 2015—it was BRL 42 billion three years ago, and now its BRL 43 billion,” said Breno M. Freitas, an associate professor and bee pollination specialist at the Federal University of Ceará. The increase recorded, he explains, is really just indicative of higher crop yield.

Indeed, Brazilian investment in the sector remains low compared to some of its rival producers: in the US, where agribusiness accounts for one percent of GDP, bee pollination is worth an estimated USD 15 billion. The comparatively small investment in pollination in Brazil means that the country is a long way from the U.S.’s industrialized helter-skelter where beekeepers traverse the country literally carrying swarms of honeybees. While pollination is equally threatened by climate change and increasingly lax pesticide legislation in both Brazil and the U.S., the former may have some solutions unavailable to U.S. producers.

Pesticide deaths and biodiversity threats

International studies use apis mellifera, or European honeybees, to determine which pesticides are permitted for farming purposes. But this doesn’t help Brazilian agribusinesses to know what’s safe: apis mellifera isn’t native to Brazil.

The recent news of the deaths of 100 million bees in the space of a year in Brazil’s South set off alarm bells for environmentalists, concerned by recent government decisions to allow the use of pesticides restricted in Europe and elsewhere. But for pollination experts, the deaths are even more worrying than they may first appear: bee farming in Brazil is mostly used for honey production, while the value attributed to pollinators actually comes from wild bees in Brazil as an industry similar to that of the U.S. is yet to develop.

“We’ve seen a lot of bee deaths related to pesticides, but this has been measured in domesticated bees—bees which are put in the area specifically for pollination purposes, and managed,” said Mr. Freitas. “We haven’t got any idea what’s happening with wild bees. The potential impact on them is very, very large.”

Even pesticides that people don’t consider as being potentially harmful to bees have been shown to damage populations, according to Kayna Agostini, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos. Fungicides have previously been permitted for areas dependent on bees—which is bad news for common bee species which depend on specific fungi growth within their hives. However, Ms. Agostini believes that despite these challenges, greater investment in understanding bee species native to Brazil could lead to greater profits for agribusiness firms.

Research investments could be vital to industry growth

Pollination, Ms. Agostini and Mr. Freitas say, is a nascent but underdeveloped industry in Brazil. But differences in plant and animal species, geography, and climate all stand to increase Brazil’s pollination potential if properly studied and invested in.

This is where the sector’s biggest challenges overlap with its greatest opportunities, according to Ms. Agostini. “The challenge is to better understand Brazilian bee behaviors, and how to scale production,” she said. Soy, for example, is self-pollinating and doesn’t necessarily need help from bees or other insects. “But if you put pollinators in the area, they increase productivity by 30 percent.”

Monoculture farming, popular among Brazilian agribusiness moguls for its capacity to turn fast profits, also threatens pollinator populations. Research shows that it strips insects of the variety needed in their diets, impacting their efficiency as well as the population size. Abstaining from deforestation in areas surrounding crop fields also produces a positive effect on bee population size and health, and increases agricultural yield and profits.

But if agribusiness continues to favor monoculture and deforestation, Ms. Agostini warns that Brazilian agribusiness could end up “having to hire people” to care for and transport pollinators specifically for certain crops, increasing production costs and potentially impacting Brazil’s market competitiveness.

But despite these challenges, Mr. Freitas believes that Brazil’s climate and biodiversity mean that a homegrown pollination industry is perhaps more feasible than in the U.S. Pollination happens all year round, in different regions and between different plant and pollinator species—meaning that the most likely scenario would be for bees to be transported within state lines.

“Our main export products are soy, oranges, coffee, and cotton,” he said. “While these cultures aren’t totally dependent on pollinators, they all certainly show increased productivity with them.”

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BY Ciara Long

Based in Rio de Janeiro, Ciara focuses on covering human rights, culture, and politics.