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.
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 high–ground, 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 it’s 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.