Monsanto vs. the monarchs: The fight to save the world’s most stunning butterfly migration

North America is on the verge of losing one of its most spectacular phenomena, Chip Taylor tells Salon

Topics: monarch butterflies, Monsanto, herbicides, GMOs, Ethanol, U.S. Congress, Editor's Picks, ,

Monsanto vs. the monarchs: The fight to save the world's most stunning butterfly migration(Credit: CathyKeifer via iStock)

Monarch butterflies are pretty impressive insects: Aside from that whole metamorphosis thing, they’re famous for their annual winter migration, an up to 3,000-mile journey across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The breathtaking spectacle that results when they alight, by the millions, in central Mexico is the sort that inspires legends, not to mention sustains the country’s tourist industry.

But if the monarchs can be said to have a fatal flaw, it’s that they’re are entirely dependent upon milkweed. And milkweed, once common in the American Midwest, has been all but eliminated from the cropland where it once thrived, the loss a side effect of our growing, and increasingly efficient, industrial agriculture system. While the monarch itself isn’t yet endangered, its stunning migration could soon become a thing of the past.

There are actually a lot of places where we can place the blame for this. The push, by Congress, to use corn-based ethanol as biofuel didn’t help matters, and climate change certainly isn’t doing the butterflies any favors, either. The question now is what we’re going to do about it. Enter Chip Taylor, insect ecologist and founder of Monarch Watch. The group, which has been operating since 1992 out of the University of Kansas, is hard at work on an enticingly simple solution to all this: if the loss of milkweed is killing the butterflies, then maybe, just maybe, what we need to do is plant more milkweed.

There’s a little more to it, of course. But, as Taylor told Salon, it’s a promising start. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Berkeley Food Institute agree: this May, they honored him with a Growing Green award for his work as a “pollinator protector.” Taylor spoke with Salon about his 22-year campaign to protect the monarchs, and made a heck of a case for why they’re worth the effort. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I was hoping first you could give us an update on the status of the monarch butterflies. I know they had a really bad winter — has any good news arrived with springtime?

We’ve had three years in a row in which the conditions for reproduction have not been good, and so the population has been going down in part due to the fact we just haven’t had good breeding conditions in each of the previous summers. But the main issue with the monarchs is the long-term trend. It’s been the loss of habitat. And if we hadn’t lost so much habitat we wouldn’t be worrying so much about the population, because we’d still have a pretty good base.

The long-term loss of habitat has been due to the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops. As herbicide-tolerant crops really began to increase in about the year 2000, then we began to see an impact on the population. The reason for that is monarchs are dependent on milkweeds, and it turned out that milkweeds were actually growing in corn and soybean fields, in modest numbers — not enough to cause crop damage or interfere with crop production. Monarchs are totally dependent on milkweeds to reproduce; without milkweeds there are no monarchs. So as these herbicide-tolerant plants were adopted more and more, we saw progressive elimination of milkweeds in the field crops. I should mention that the reason the milkweeds still persisted in the field crops was that prior to the year 2000 most of the weeds were controlled by tillage. Milkweeds survived that better than most weeds did, and that’s why they still persisted in those fields despite the fact there was weed control. But once we had the herbicide-tolerant plants coming into the system we lost the milkweeds.

By the year 2006 [and] 2007 there was virtually no milkweed left in corn and soybean fields. We really saw tension, and the population really started to go down. And then we had the ethanol mandate, which President Bush signed at the end of 2007. Farmers knew that the price of corn was going to go up because of the demand to produce ethanol, and so what happened over the next five years was that the growers all over the upper Midwest looked for everything they possibly could convert into cropland, and they converted something like 24 million acres of grassland habitat, wetland habitat — anything they could get they converted to crops. And so that’s a tremendous conversion rate in five years. 24 million acres. I mean that’s just astounding, and it works out to be the size of the state of Indiana. You can’t lose that much habitat without having an impact on a lot of things out there. There are a lot of pollinators that are living in those habitats, a lot of ground-nesting birds, just an awful lot of species. At the same time, part of that 24 million was 11.2 million acres of CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] land. So Congress got into this in a big way, in that they first of all approved the ethanol mandate and secondly approved the reduction in CRP land from something like 37 million acres down to about 25.5 million acres now.

So monarchs are down for a number of reasons: They’re down for all those habitat reasons and now they’re down because of those seasonal conditions. But things are looking better this year: I’m predicting there will be a modest increase in the population. Next winter they’ll be better than they were this past winter — but that’s an easy prediction, that it’s going to be slightly better. What I can’t really do is project how much better it’s going to be. All I can say it’s going to be positive. All the conditions right now indicate a positive change in the population, and an increase in number. Just how much of an increase we’ll have to wait and see.

Just to back up a little bit: When we talk about the genetically modified crops and the weed resistance, we’re referring to Monsanto and GMO crops — two of the environmental community’s favorite villains. How certain are we that they’re the main thing responsible for the decline of the butterflies?

I don’t think there’s any question about it. The statistics are really quite clear. I mean, the fact is that you could go out and take pictures of milkweed in cornfields around the year 2000 — and I have such pictures — and the fact is you can’t find it anymore. I mean, it’s gone. And the fact is also that we knew it was a highly productive habitat. There’s no question that the milkweed has gone down and as a consequence the monarchs have gone down. The first statement that I made on this was in 1999, and I said this was going to happen. I got a letter from a farmer in 2004 and he said, “Well, you know, I have adopted new technology and it’s eliminating all the milkweed and it’s going to eliminate the monarch butterflies.” I had a farmer tell me that in 2004. And you know, it’s obvious. You go back and look at what was going on in those fields, and there was milkweed, and now there isn’t. We’ve lost a hundred million acres of milkweed-containing habitat, which is due to new technology.

When Congress passed the ethanol mandate in 2007, was there any recognition that this was something that might happen that might occur as a side effect? Did the loss of milkweed enter into the debate at all, or was it completely overlooked? 

I think it was overlooked. I mean, I think in both these cases, you look at the herbicide-tolerant crops, you’re looking at an unintended consequence. You look at the ethanol mandate, you’re looking at an unintended, unexpected consequence. In both cases you’re looking at economic and political decisions that favor the individuals, and you can’t blame the individuals for adopting these kinds of technologies. They’re working with the tools that they’re given. So I’m not doing a lot of finger pointing in this round of things because it doesn’t do us any good; we just really have to acknowledge what has happened and then try to do something about it.

And so the big push now really has to be to adjust to these new realities. And things have changed so much that we’re really down to the eight ball. We’ve got bird species declining throughout the Midwest, especially ground-nesting birds. We’ve got pollinators declining significantly. We’ve got monarch butterflies declining significantly. And the question is, what are we going to do about it? It’s not a matter of pointing fingers at this point, it’s a matter of recognizing we’ve put ourselves in a bind and now we have to make some adjustments, and I think you’re going to hear a lot more about this in the coming weeks.

Why in the coming weeks?

I think there’s a lot of talk going on, both at the federal level and privately, about coming up with some solutions. There’s no money on the table yet, and there are no fleshed-out plans that really speak to implementation and budget issues, so on and so forth, yet. But there’s a lot of movement in that direction. These things take a while to develop, and I think folks are going to see within weeks and perhaps months there will be some plans on the table, there will be some budget considerations. There will be an attempt to actually address these issues.

Would that be mainly through replanting milkweed?

It’s not only milkweed. This is going to be about restoring pollinator habitat, and restoring pollinator habitat means you’re restoring a mixed habitat for a lot of nectar plants for honeybees and other pollinators. You’re restoring milkweeds, you’re restoring a lot of grassland. So you’re restoring a diverse thing. We’re not talking about creating monocultures of milkweed, we’re talking about creating natural landscapes that contain a diverse array of maybe 40 different species of plants, that won’t absolutely mimic nature but will get us back to where we are, at the very least, supporting ground-nesting birds, pollinators and monarch butterflies.

Can you walk through some of the direct implications of the loss of the monarch butterflies? Obviously, this is coming along with the decline of bees and birds and all these other losses, but what’s the import of the monarch, specifically?

Well that’s the nuts and bolts of the argument that I have here. The monarch butterflies are symbolic of a lot of other things that are happening on our landscapes. I mean, they tell us the fact that the pollinators are going down, they tell us the ground-nesting birds are going down, the small mammals are going down and so on and so forth. They lost that habitat that they share with all of those other species, and that means all of those other species are going down. And the implications of losing the pollinators are that they keep the system together, I mean they’re a keystone group of organisms.

The real importance of the monarch butterfly has to do with those relationships. But beyond that, this is a sensational migratory insect. I mean this is a species that unites a continent. This is a species that is involved in one of the most spectacular biological phenomena on the planet. And it’s simply something that we should not lose and don’t want to lose. You have to perhaps go to Mexico to these overwintering sites to fully grasp what I’m talking about here. But to walk into one of the forests and to walk into an area where you have 25 million butterflies per acre is a breathtaking experience, particularly when you realize that most of those butterflies migrated 1,500 or even 2,000 miles to get there. And a lot of them died on the way, and a lot of them are going die before this whole thing starts up again the next spring. I mean, it is truly a biological phenomenon that sparks a lot of wonder, it’s economically important for the people in that region of Mexico and educationally it is one of the things that helps our citizens understand their relationship to the natural world around them.

The aesthetic appeal must help spark people’s interest, too.

This is our most charismatic insect, without a question. This insect, unlike others, is not frightening: it’s accessible, it’s beautiful. Every kid who’s had an opportunity to find a caterpillar and raise it has had a wonderful experience with it, and it’s something that would be a shame to lose. And when I first started this program, one of the things we did was tag a lot of butterflies — we still do. And I would get notes from people thanking me for connecting them with something large, a phenomenon outside their daily lives, a phenomenon that sparks some wonder, that they were tagging butterflies that were destined to go another 1,200 miles to reach their overwintering sites. That just kind of blew a lot of people away. And they could see hundreds of monarchs passing by their 25-story buildings in Dallas on a daily basis for a week in September and early October. I mean that connected them. They could say, “Now I know what’s going on. This is awesome. I’m glad I’m part of this.” That’s the sort of response I got. And that’s the kind of thing that’s kept this going all these years.

Tell me a little bit about this initiative for planting new milkweed habitat. How much milkweed needs to be planted to make a difference, to make up for what’s been lost?

There’s a lot that’s been lost. If you go to the website, you’ll see a monarch recovery plan, and the stark reality of it is that we’re losing a million to a million and a half acres of habitat a year. Just to run as fast as we can to stay in one place, we have to replace at least that much habitat, and that’s a tall order. And we’re scrambling to figure out how we can replace that much habitat each year, let alone getting back all the things we’ve lost over the last 10 or 15 years. We’re never going to be back to where we were. What we really have to aspire to is to keep the restoration at a level so that we’re not losing ground first, and then try to recover some of what we’ve lost — but we’re never going to get back to the 10- or 12-hectare populations that we saw in the past. We had a population in 1996 that was just incredible: it was almost 20 hectares of butterflies, almost a billion butterflies, and we’re never going see that. What we really want to do is get back to a level where we’re seeing something like 3 or 4 hectares of butterflies at the overwintering sites every year. We could maintain a stable sort of situation with that many butterflies; that’s what it really takes to deal with the ups and downs of this population. But we don’t have that much habitat right now, so we’re going to have to build up to the point at which we have a stable population that has enough habitat to maintain those numbers.

Are we at the point right now where we’re worried about the monarch going extinct? Is the population that unstable?

No, we’re not — it’s not going to go extinct. But we could lose the migration, which would be a shame. You’ve got this eastern North America which has this wonderful migration that people experience every fall — I mean, I’ve got friends who go to football games and they watch the monarchs flying through the stadiums in the fall as much as they watch the football because it’s really a cool thing to see. To point out to your friends, “Hey look at that, there goes a monarch, and there’s another one. Do you know what they’re doing? They’re on their way to Mexico.” Pretty cool.

Anyway, as far as what we’re doing, last year we pioneered for ourselves a milkweed plug protection system. I couldn’t get nurseries to produce milkweeds. They said there’s no market. So I decided to produce 25,000 milkweeds anyway, and see if I could find a market, and I did. I found a market for about 21 or 22,000 of those 25,000 milkweeds last year. And so this year we started up growing 50,000 milkweed plugs. We’ve already distributed about 30,000 of those and we’re scrambling now to distribute the other 20,000. And that’s a big project; I mean, 30, 40,000 of anything is really a lot to handle with a small operation like we have. And it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s really needed out there, but it’s a start. And everything has to start one way. So if we had 100 nurseries doing what we’re doing, and had the customers for that, then we’d be having a real impact. Right now we’re having a small impact, we’re engaging a lot of the people that are really interested in this, and they’re going to be spreading the word, and every year it’s going to get bigger. I’ve already talked to the nursery about what we’re going to do next year, and we’re probably talking about 70,000, maybe 80,000 plugs. So that’ll only be the third year of this program and we’re certainly going to be getting other nurseries involved. I’m developing partnerships with other nurseries now that they’re seeing there’s a market. I’m sending people lots of customers.

So hopefully we can build this up so that we really do have an impact eventually. But we need to get the gardeners across the country involved; we need to get all the master gardeners, master naturalists, we need to get all the parks and cities involved. We need to make this a national priority because we need to get all hands on deck. We need to get everybody across the country into this. Because we do have issues with monarch butterflies and pollinators and ground-nesting birds and small mammals and we need to maintain the habitat for them. We can’t just convert everything into an agricultural field or an urban environment. We have to maintain the wildlife out there. This is as fundamental as our relationship with nature, but also the reality is about 70 percent of that native vegetation out there is insect pollinated and if you don’t have the insects, you lose the plants, and if you don’t have the plants you lose the things that feed on those plants. So we’ve got to keep this system together. People don’t understand this, but everything’s connected out there and we have to maintain those connections.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email

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