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New Efforts to Save the Monarch Butterfly, But Do They Go Far Enough?

March 12th, 2015
By Larissa Walker, Pollinator Campaign Director, Center for Food Safety.
Center for Food Safety

Originally published on Food Tank on March 7, 2015.

Do you remember learning about the monarch butterfly when you were a kid? Observing its life cycle, metamorphosis and migration? When was the last time you saw a monarch butterfly?

If it seems like monarch butterflies have all but disappeared, you are right. Monarch butterfly numbers have declined by 90 percent since the mid-1990s. Their main population is only one extreme storm away from being wiped out. It’s obvious that we need to act swiftly, and a few weeks ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced a plan to spend US$3.2 million in an attempt to save this iconic species. Unfortunately for monarchs, although a step in the right direction, the proposal fails to address the real root of the problem, and thus is a band-aid solution.

The root of the problem is as simple as it is widespread. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on plants in the milkweed family. It's the only food monarch caterpillars will eat. The most commonly used agricultural herbicide, glyphosate (sold under the brand name Roundup, among others), is especially detrimental to milkweed. About 20 years ago, Monsanto developed Roundup Ready corn and soybeans that are genetically engineered to withstand exposure to glyphosate and use of the herbicide sky-rocketed. This dramatic spike in use of glyphosate has resulted in an annihilation of milkweed in key monarch breeding areas, leading to a decline in the butterfly.

Center for Food Safety recently published a report called “Monarchs in Peril” showing in detail how genetically-engineered (GE) corn and soybeans and the herbicides used with them are contributing to the plight of monarch butterflies. As the report makes abundantly clear, two decades of glyphosate use on GE Roundup Ready crops have led to a near-eradication of milkweed in the monarch’s vital Midwest breeding ground.

If we have any hope of saving monarch butterflies, then we must stop ignoring the harms of our industrial agricultural system, which is exactly what Monsanto wants us to do. To advance a more comprehensive recovery plan, Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity, joined by the Xerces Society and monarch biologist Dr. Lincoln Brower, filed a petition with the FWS urging them to protect monarchs as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Listing monarch butterflies as a threatened species is essential to their survival. It would provide strong, national protections for the butterflies and their habitat. It would also lead to a federal recovery plan involving key government agencies, and secure adequate funding levels for monarch conservation efforts nationwide. In other words, monarchs are an at-risk species, and if we don't start protecting them, then they are going the way of the passenger pigeon.

But what about the FWS's plan to spend US$3.2 million to save monarchs? The government recognizes that a key part of the habitat of the monarch (milkweed in corn and soybean fields) has been nearly eradicated. Their plan is to plant more milkweed and nectar plants on about 200,000 acres in between divided highways, in school yards, and in other public places. Unfortunately, that won’t help much. Over a hundred million acres of breeding habitat has been wiped clean of milkweed by use of glyphosate on genetically engineered crops. Scientists have found that monarchs lay almost four times more eggs on milkweed in agricultural fields. Furthermore, there is too little habitat outside of cropland to support a viable monarch population. First, corn and soybeans dominate the Midwest landscape – the heart of monarch breeding range – leaving little area in roadsides, pastures, and other land where milkweed can grow. There simply isn't enough space to plant enough milkweed and save monarchs unless we address the issue of glyphosate use in industrial agriculture.

That is not to say that these efforts to restore milkweed habitat outside of cropland are unimportant. Rather, if eradication of milkweed within agricultural fields is not also addressed, monarch populations will not rebound to resilient, healthy levels, no matter how much milkweed is planted in parks and along roadways. So it’s critical we also restore milkweed in agricultural areas; unfortunately, this vital breeding habitat has been destroyed by Monsanto’s best-selling product.

It’s important to point out that farming per se is not the problem. Monarch butterflies have coexisted with agriculture for centuries, and monarchs have been able to thrive in a landscape dominated by agriculture. It wasn’t until Roundup Ready corn and soybeans were introduced in the mid-1990s that glyphosate became unleashed, and milkweeds were all but wiped out. Glyphosate is an extremely effective herbicide against milkweed because it attacks the perennial plants’ otherwise sturdy and long lasting root system that gives rise to new plants. Because Roundup Ready crops are resistant to glyphosate, farmers have been encouraged to use the damaging herbicide in greater quantities and with more regularity throughout the growing season. This is very different from the pattern of glyphosate use in pre-Roundup Ready agriculture. If someone were to intentionally concoct a recipe for how to get rid of milkweed, it would look a lot like the Roundup Ready crop system.

Thankfully, there is hope for monarchs. In December 2014, the FWS responded to the petition to protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act. They said that listing may be warranted and they're reviewing the dense, scientific evidence.

This is a major step, but we need to move quickly before this beautiful creature is lost forever. You can voice your support for that action here. As the agency moves forward with conducting it’s one-year status review on monarch butterflies, we must continue to demand that they look at the bigger picture, and remind them that our best hope of saving monarch butterflies starts within our agricultural fields.

As the renowned monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower has pointed out: the monarch butterfly is the canary in the cornfield – it serves as a critical indicator species by highlighting larger environmental problems with our current agricultural system. Many species of pollinators, not just monarchs, are at risk if we don’t address the problems with our current system. The factors that are causing monarch numbers to plummet also threaten many other species of butterflies and bees, which in turn threatens our own, as a significant portion of our food supply is dependent on the ecological services that these critical species provide.

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