Due to the recent news on monarch butterflies, I’m re-publishing a post from last year on the subject. First, here are a few updates:
The bad news
Monarch butterfly population has plummeted to one-tenth of what it was historically. This coincides rather symmetrically to the ten-fold increase in the use of Roundup, thanks to the genetically-modified corn and beans I wrote about the post below.
The good news
The Natural Resources Defense Council has called for a curb on the use of Roundup.
I hope that the debate on genetically-modified products will expand beyond how nutritious they might be and include the effect they have on other species and the environment in general.
For more information, check out the most recent article in the New York Times on monarchs.
Here’s my original post published May 15, 2013
There might be a few good reasons for genetically modified food crops—increased nutrition or drought tolerance perhaps—but Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soybeans were “invented” for one purpose.
You can spray the heck out of them.
Roundup Ready plants won’t die from heavy herbicide use—that’s their claim to fame. (Plus they encourage increased use of Monsanto’s other big product, the herbicide Roundup itself). But all other leafy life in Roundup’s way will shrivel and die, including one of agriculture’s most despised plants, milkweed.
But what Big Ag hates, butterflies love. Milkweed is the one and only plant that monarch butterflies use as a “host” plant. Without it, they cannot survive as a species.
Milkweed is a native grassland plant that used to thrive along with thousands of other grassland plants and animals in prairie regions of North America. Even before the introduction of Roundup Ready seeds, tallgrass prairie habitats had already been reduced to less than one percent of their extent prior to European settlement and agriculture.
Since most prairie land was converted to agriculture, milkweed grew only in remnant prairies, preserves, private gardens, or in between row crops—which actually added up to quite a bit of habitat, when you consider millions of acres of corn, beans, and other crops.
Not anymore, though, thanks in large part to Roundup Ready. Loss of milkweed habitat in row crops is thought to be the reason—along with extreme weather—that Monarch populations plunged dramatically this year. (note: this was published a year ago, new figures are much worse.)
Monarch butterflies are a marvel and a mystery. Their unique migrating behavior is still not fully understood. They migrate thousands of miles on a round trip between the U.S. and their wintering grounds in a forest in Mexico. But, how do they find their way? No single individual makes the entire round trip…there are never any older adults to show the young ones the way, as with other species. Are monarchs born with some kind of “map” of the route already in their brains?
Two days ago, Monsanto won a huge victory in the U.S. Supreme Court (in May of 2013). They were suing a farmer for illegally using their patented Roundup Ready soybean seeds. The farmer claimed the beans had (more or less) sprouted of their own accord, and were exempt from the patent, but the Court ruled against him and he ended up with an $84,000 fine. Justice Kagan rejected what she called a “blame-the-bean” defense.
She’s probably right about that. We can’t blame beans for sprouting, or farmers for wanting to save time and money by using new products at their disposal, or Big Chem for making Big Chemicals, or Big Ag, or even Big Politics.
If monarchs go extinct, it will be a tragedy. But, it will be our own fault. You, me, and most everyone else living in North America. We live the richest lives in human history. We vote with our ballots, and we vote with our dollars. We’re running the show.
Each migrating monarch makes individual butterfly-decisions that guide the whole species on one of the most amazing, most unlikely migrations of any lifeform. And they have a brain the size of a…well really, really small.
What can we do? Can we find better ways to live individually that added together will collectively guide our species to a more sustainable future?
What do you think?
So, what to do?
If you live in monarch range, plant milkweed!
Go outside, enjoy nature, butterflies, birds…everything.
High Country News article about Monsanto
New York Times article about Monsanto
New York Times article about monarchs
Yale 360 post about Monsanto and monarchs
Monarch Watch – an organization dedicated to studying, tracking, and preserving monarchs
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Puget Sound – Our Inland Sea Needs Help
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