Monarch Butterflies: Industrial Agricultural Warfare Is Killing Them, Us

A monarch butterfly rests on the flowers of a pagoda plant on the grounds of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, Friday, Oct. 17,
A monarch butterfly rests on the flowers of a pagoda plant on the grounds of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, Friday, Oct. 17, 2003, in St. Marks, Fla. The wildlife refuge is on the monarch's migration route from the northern United States to Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains where they will spend the winter. (AP Photo/Phil Coale)

The nonprofit organization Make Way for Monarchs is calling for April 14, 2014, the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's death, to be a day of action and contemplation for monarch butterflies and other imperiled pollinators. As genetically modified (GM), herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops such as corn, soy and cotton overspread our agricultural lands, farmers spray the land with herbicides. Those herbicides kill the milkweeds that monarchs depend on.

Three-quarters of the world's food depends upon pollinators, primarily wild insects, for reproduction. The orange-and-black monarch, flying from flower to flower for sips of "flight fuel," or nectar, provides the essential service of pollination.

The travel habits of monarch butterflies are nothing short of miraculous. Starting in March, up to five consecutive generations of monarchs flutter and glide from Mexico to Canada. In October, a single generation of these seemingly flimsy bits of life starts the arduous flight -- of 2000 miles or more -- all the way back.

Last year was the worst year in recorded history for the number of monarch butterflies arriving in Mexico. The population of arriving monarchs plummeted 90 percent from the annual average population of the last 15 years, and the insects' annual migration is in danger of disappearing. This catastrophic decline is attributed to herbicide application and urban sprawl in their summer breeding grounds in the United States, combined with illegal logging in the butterflies' wintering grounds in Mexico. The logging has been curtailed. The herbicide problem continues unchecked.

We need to act fast to avoid breaking the migratory chain that is the foundation of the monarchs' existence. In February, in response to a letter written by Mexican poet Homero Aridjis and signed by more than 100 scientists, writers and environmentalists, U.S. President Barack Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to establish a working group on the conservation of monarch butterflies.

Adult monarchs lay their eggs on milkweeds, and milkweeds provide the first meals for the newly hatched larvae. The caterpillars of monarch butterflies eat only a single food, the leaves of milkweed plants. Milkweeds provide monarchs with a toxin that repels predators. Aridjis is calling for the creation of a "milkweed corridor" stretching along the entire migratory route of the monarch. Milkweeds would be planted and allowed to live alongside roadways and railroad tracks and in fields, ditches, pastures, meadows, parks and other public places.

Since their introduction in 1996, HT crops have been planted in increasing quantities. In 2007, U.S. farmers applied 185 million pounds of glyphosate herbicides, the most popular type, to their croplands. In recent years, land has been taken out of conservation restrictions and put into production to grow HT corn to produce the gasoline additive ethanol. Both of these developments have been deadly to milkweeds, which have been wiped out in large areas. The essence of HT crop culture is the engineering of the cash crop to withstand herbicides and then dousing herbicides on everything, essentially saying, "To hell with everything, except for my precious crop that can tolerate the poison."

Herbicides harm non-target plants and wildlife, and they also harm human health. Once thought to be safe for humans, the top-selling, glyphosate herbicide Roundup is now implicated in a range of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson's, infertility and cancers. So-called "inert ingredients" in Roundup can kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

The HT strategy has backfired as "superweeds" that resist glyphosate take hold. Farmers have had to apply more and more herbicide, increasing their costs and reducing the popularity of HT crops. Will this be a never-ending arms race, deploying ever-more-lethal herbicides to deal with ever-developing superweeds, with ever-more collateral damage?

When we fight nature, we lose. The logical approach to feeding ourselves is to massively ramp up the existing, viable, time-tested alternative of organic agriculture. Organic agriculture doesn't use herbicides or GM organisms, and it has numerous collateral benefits, such as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, in consumer and farm worker illness and death, in wildlife illness and death, and in water and soil pollution.

The long-term solution for our species and our planet is for us to adopt a green and sustainable way of life. The short-term solution for the monarch is to immediately create a wide corridor of milkweeds from Mexico to Canada. We can plant milkweeds (and avoid mowing them down or spraying them with herbicide) to benefit insect pollinators, to redress mistakes, and to demonstrate the human ability to act, to care, and to protect our viability as a species.

To effect change on both personal and policy levels, individuals can:

• Write to President Obama, urging him to lead the prompt creation of a milkweed corridor.

• Ask state and local representatives to promote the planting of milkweeds and the reduction of unnecessary mowing and herbicide application.

• Plant milkweeds -- buying plants from local garden clubs and native plant societies.

• Choose organic.

• Promote agricultural methods that don't kill milkweeds and other plants that pollinators need.

Press for labeling of GM foods in the United States, as 64 other countries already require.

Involve children in learning about monarchs and planting milkweeds.

Participate in the April 14 day of action for monarchs.

• Spread the word about this issue through social media.

• Use less gasoline, and thus less ethanol, thus requiring less production of HT corn.

I saw only five monarch butterflies last summer at my home in western Massachusetts. I was thrilled and relieved, but sad, each time. It has been 52 years since Carson sounded the alarm about the devastating effects of pesticides. Haven't we learned that agricultural warfare is not the answer?


Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green and sustainable practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or find more information on her website.