Will Monsanto Save the Monarch Butterfly?

As this iconic species dwindles in number, a company linked to its demise claims to be taking up its cause.


Monarch butterflies are in trouble. These popular insects, which have captured the public imagination with their several-thousand mile migrations, have been steadily disappearing for the past 20 years. Now, Monsanto says it wants to help turn the tide. Can the seed and pesticide giant seen by many as responsible for the monarchs’ decline make a difference for these pollinators? Or will its next batch of genetically engineered (GE) crops make matters worse?

Here’s the back-story: Recent research has tied herbicide use on GE crops to the monarchs’ demise. Monarchs thrived under intensive agriculture for many decades. But all that changed when GE crops rose to predominance in the Midwest and glyphosate, or Roundup, rose with it.

Every year, most monarchs migrate through the Corn Belt to Mexico, where they stay for the winter. On their way back in the spring, they lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The plant then provides food for the caterpillars once they hatch. In fact, milkweed is the only food they eat. Corn and soybeans account for the substantial majority of land use in their path, and most milkweed had been found in corn or soybean fields in recent decades.

Although the plant is seen as a weed, it doesn’t generally cause significant crop loss. But it turns out that glyphosate herbicides like Roundup, used on most GE crops, are particularly good at killing milkweed.

So, as go milkweeds in and near corn and soybeans, so goes the monarch. And milkweed has been largely wiped out by the herbicides used on GE glyphosate-resistant crops.

Over the past 20 years, the population of monarchs has plummeted over 90 percent. And while other factors contribute to this decline, scientists recognize that loss of milkweed as the main culprit.

Several months ago, Center for Food Safety, along with the Xerces Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, and prominent monarch biologist, Lincoln Brower, petitioned the U.S. Department of Interior to list the monarch as a threatened or endangered species. In a first step, the Department recently accepted the petition for evaluation.

How does Monsanto, which bills itself as a “sustainable agriculture company,” plan to deal with this possible development?

If monarchs are listed as threatened or endangered, it’s entirely possible that solutions might include actions that could cut into the company’s bottom line, such as restrictions on the use of glyphosate and herbicide-resistant GE crops.

Not to worry. The creative folks at Monsanto have a solution!

Monsanto’s website details how it plans to go about, “Helping Protect the Monarch Butterfly.” It attempts to take the highground, while taking a swipe at those who want to list it as threatened or endangered.

The company’s points will sound reasonable to untrained ears; Monsanto says it is working with a non-profit organization called the Keystone Center, to devise further plans to help the butterfly. And what is the Keystone Center? According to the website, it’s a nonprofit organization, “established to independently facilitate the resolution of national policy conflicts.”

Its co-chair is Jerry Steiner, a long-time Monsanto vice president. And its board is dominated by representatives of private companies–from Nike to Walmart—and several major seed and pesticide companies. Monsanto has been involved with Keystone’s agriculture initiatives for years.

When it comes to saving the monarchs, it is promising to “assist in convening a more formal effort that will lead to greater collaboration and implementation of conservation initiatives in the U.S.” While this effort is yet to take place, nothing the group has taken on so far suggests that they plan to discuss reducing the use of herbicides on GE crops.

Monsanto’s website says that, after all, milkweed is a problem for farmers. It proposes finding habitat for milkweed outside of crop fields, while continuing to keep their corn and soybeans as devoid of other plant life as possible.

Let’s unpack this plan. Monsanto suggests that going back to pre-GE weed control would not help, because, “farmers have battled weeds since the first grower plowed a field.” But in fact, prior to engineered glyphosate-resistant crops, corn and soybeans in the Midwest were highly productive, and milkweed was often found in their fields, without usually causing significant crop loses.

Although herbicide producers want farmers to think in terms of complete elimination of weeds, weed can exist in fields at levels that do not lead to lost crops. Of course, the epidemic of voracious herbicide-resistant weeds caused by the continued overuse of its herbicides is a different story.

Monsanto’s idea of scorched earth weed control is a throwback to pesticide overuse of the 60s and 70s, which was being replaced by scientifically and ecologically–based concepts of integrated pest management (IPM) in the 80s and 90s. But herbicide-resistant GE crops reversed that trend.

Now many farmers treat pest control again as if it were a war, with pesticides the weapons of choice. But this approach is bad for the environment, and ultimately for crop production, because it leads to pest resistance and more pesticides.

And that’s bad for everyone, except for the pesticide companies. So, the first thing to understand about Monsanto’s plan is that it is based on an old model of thinking, not the scientific forefront that it likes to claim it has staked out.

Planting milkweed on non-farmland probably won’t be enough to save the monarchs. In fact, there is probably not enough non-farmland in the Corn Belt to turn the tide for these butterflies. For decades, the most milkweed—and the milkweed most preferred by monarchs—grew in crop fields. Of course, allowing more milkweeds in cornfields can’t happen without reducing the acreage of GE herbicide resistant crops and accompanying tons of herbicide sprayed on them.

Monsanto dismisses the petition to list monarchs as threatened or endangered, claiming that “it doesn’t do anything to help the problem.” Disregarding the utility of the Endangered Species Act, which has been integral in saving species ranging from the bald eagle to wolves in the lower 48 states, reveals Monsanto’s disregard for the environment behind its veneer of concern.

But what really worries Monsanto is the fact that that listing could be used as an argument for organic and other ecologically-based farming methods that have been shown to be productive and sustainable. This approach to agriculture could save the monarchs and get at the heart of the problem that their demise points to—the overall assault of industrial agriculture on biodiversity and the environment. And you can bet its the solution Monsanto most wants to drown out with loud, vague greenwashing.

Meanwhile, at January’s annual monarch count in Mexico, scientists found the second-lowest number of the butterflies since surveys began in 1993 and conservationists are warning of extinction if meaningful action is not taken to reverse this trend.

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  1. Paul Cherubini
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    The truth is monarch butterflies can be filmed by the hundreds in the heart of GMO farmland like southwestern Minnesota: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32usE8vikxA GMO crop farmers in the Midwest are themselves posting photos of large gathering of monarchs on their farm property like this one did on Sept. 4, 2014: https://www.learner.org/cgi-bin/jnorth/jn-query-byday?1409942868
  2. Mark Chandler
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    Really important issue, and a nice paper nicely laying out the opportunities the demise of this symbolic species may present to tackle corporate agriculture. Does anyone know how many monarchs there might have been before large scale agriculture, and much of the mid west was a prairie?
  3. Toper
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    HMM, Keystone is co chaired by another Monsanto VP, yes they are everywhere aren't they? From the FDA, to the supreme court. How can we have any objectivity when their influence dominate all decision making in this country? How about he Bt that has been spliced into corn, that kills many lepidopterous insects as well. Having been in Agriculture for the last 32 years leaves me very skeptical of any BS that comes from these huge chemical companies. They want to control our food supply and weed out (no pun intended) any small and independent producers. I hope the monarch gets on the endangered species list, with real science dictating the course of action to take. We can't leave this decision up to Monsanto.
  4. Trecia Neal
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    Excellent synopsis of the problem and why Monsanto is such a huge issue for the Monarch community.
  5. Dona Heisler
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    monsanto only cares that it continues to make money. It does not care that as the Monarch goes also the human race goes!! We are slowly dying from all the poison on the same crops that the small beautiful harmless Monarch is dying from. The same crops that kill the natural scent of flowers that in turn kill our polinataiting bees. The little workers that help to feed and give us beauty are warning us to stop this monster Monsanto. We, the human race, is next plus our pets!!!! This is not speculation but fact. Look at our obesity and our health problems they tell a story. Look at countries that do not allow GMO's, they tell a story of health for all.
  6. bradford cutler
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    Monsanto's roundup product is not to blame. However because of their boneheaded agronomic practices they have created a resistance problem to the point where their GMO roundup ready product is on the verge of being rendered useless, a problem that could have been avoided if they had chosen to use the modern day practices of IPM but hey you have Bill Gates in the board room calling the shots and attempting to corner the seed market and they have but at what price to the future of their product. Can you say stupidity. The real reason in my view is Monsanto's Bt corn pollen. The adult migratory Monarchs are drinking this toxin as it is blown into the monarch's drinking sources as they are highly susceptible as adult insects not as larvae.
  7. Arthur Doucette
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    The author is pretty ignorant of farming.
    Farmers aren't going backward to use more toxic herbicides and give up the gains they have made with No Till farming. The solution for providing milkweed to the Monarchs is not to allow weeds in our corn fields, but in our parks, along side our roads, in our gardens and if need be some set aside land for them. An acre of milk weed would support over 1 million monarchs, so just Ten 2 acres plots in each of 20 states around the Mississippi would provide enough food for nearly half a billion monarchs, pretty much where they were.
  8. Arthur Doucette
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    Topor wrote: How about he Bt that has been spliced into corn, that kills many lepidopterous insects as well , except that isn't true. Only insects that actually eat the corn are affected by the Bt within it, which means it has much less impact on non-target species than any insecticide sprayed on a field. Butterflies eat nectar, which corn doesn't produce, so no impact at all.
  9. Arthur Doucette
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
    Topor wrote: "Keystone is co chaired by another Monsanto VP, yes they are everywhere aren’t they? From the FDA, to the supreme court. How can we have any objectivity when their influence dominate all decision making in this country?" Hilarious Clarence Thomas was a jr lawyer for them 40 years ago, why do you think he cares anymore? More to the point, the only case involving Monsanto recently before the court was decide 9-0 in their favor. As to the FDA, we have Michael Taylor, who left Monsanto nearly a decade ago (because he disagreed with them over labeling), and went into teaching. He now is in charge of implementing the FSMA which has to do with reducing pathogens in our food, like e coli and salmonella, so nothing to do with Monsant
  10. Yogi Greg
    Wednesday, March 4th, 2015
    Monsanto, due to their creating numerous problems for our planet and health, have recently started losing money, Suddenly, they are "finding religion." BEWARE THE IDES of MARCH....
  11. Beth Kennedy
    Wednesday, March 4th, 2015
    All the pro and con talk about the Monarch (and other) problem(s) is just a distraction from the real issue: any for-profit corporation that wields that much power over
    1) food production without transparency, 2) attempts to coordinate with the known sources of knowledge re: the effects of harmful herbicides and 3) sues farmers when their gmo seeds blow onto non-gmo crop fields cannot claim any credibility whatsoever in any discussion about making the world a better place. And hoarding seeds just adds another notch in their gun - wake up, sheeple!
  12. K Loerich
    Thursday, March 5th, 2015
    I'm wondering do you have a specific source where you find the data to support you claim? "Now many farmers treat pest control again as if it were a war, with pesticides the weapons of choice." It's the premise of the article and I don't see that you've provided any proof to this fact. If you have it, please, do share. Many g.e. crops are, in fact, part OF the IPM program. http://www.ncga.com/for-farmers/issue-briefs-ipm/integrated-pest-management-practices https://croplife.org/crop-protection/stewardship/integrated-pest-management/ Every state/county ag extension office in this nation has an IPM training program. All the industry leaders also include IPM training in the education required to sign the stewardship agreements necessary.
  13. barney
    Wednesday, March 11th, 2015
    I think you need to review the effectiveness of herbicides used in corn and bean production prior to the advent of Roundup Ready beans. Milkweed hasn't been a problem for decades. Please check your facts with a farmer. If lack of milkweed along fence rows can be implicated then blame competition for land. Landowners want farmers leasing farmland to take care of the asset. They expect their farmsteads to be maintained, including being weed free. It's indicates a conscientious farmer. A farmer leaving [milk]weeds on rented land would likely not be renting the land for long.
  14. jessica deStefano
    Saturday, March 14th, 2015
    What about creating a Roundup resistant
    milkweed to save the monarch? .... Of course Monsanto isn't going to do it.
    But what prevents some other company or University
    Developmental & Cell Biology division from doing it?
    Has anyone suggested or tried this?
    Let me know ok? Thanks, Jessica