Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 9, 2015. A report, Monarchs in Peril: Herbicide-Resistant Crops and the Decline of Monarch Butterflies in North America, released by Center for Food Safety (CFS) last week, reveals the devastating impact of Monsanto’s and the nation’s biggest selling herbicide, Roundup (glyphosate), on the survival of monarch butterflies. The herbicide is used to treat millions of acres of herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered (GE) crops, eliminating the monarchs’ sole source of food, milkweed, and approaching a collapse of their population, which has plummeted over the past 20 years. The report cites findings that glyphosate use on Roundup Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) crops has nearly eradicated milkweed around farmland in the monarchs’ vital midwest breeding ground. At the urging of scientists and public interest groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently considering listing the monarch as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“This report is a wake-up call. This iconic species is on the verge of extinction because of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crop system,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety. “To let the monarch butterfly die out in order to allow Monsanto to sell its signature herbicide for a few more years is simply shameful.”
Monarch population numbers have fallen by 90% in less than 20 years. This year’s population was the second lowest since careful surveys began two decades ago. The critical driver of monarch decline is the loss of larval host plants in their main breeding habitat, the Midwestern Corn Belt. Monarchs lay eggs exclusively on plants in the milkweed family, the only food their larvae will eat.
Monarch butterflies have long coexisted with agriculture, but the proliferation of herbicide-tolerant GE crops is threatening that balance. Monsanto’s glyphosate-tolerant Roundup Ready corn and soybeans have radically altered farming practices, sharply increasing the extent, frequency and intensity of glyphosate use on farm land. Glyphosate –one of the very few herbicides that kills common milkweed– was little used two decades ago, but has become by far the most heavily used herbicide in America thanks to GE Roundup Ready crops. As a result, corn and soybean fields in the Corn Belt have lost 99% of their milkweed since just 1999.
“The alarming decline of monarchs is driven in large part by the massive spraying of glyphosate herbicide on genetically engineered crops, which has virtually eliminated monarch habitat in the corn and soybean fields that dominates the Midwest landscape,” said Bill Freese, Center for Food Safety science policy analyst and co-author of the report. “Glyphosate is the monarch’s enemy number one. To save this remarkable species, we must quickly boost milkweed populations and curtail the use of herbicide-resistant crop systems.”
Milkweed does grow outside of cropland, but there is too little habitat to support a viable monarch population. First, corn and soybeans dominate the Midwest landscape, leaving little area in roadsides, pastures, and other land where milkweed grows. Second, monarchs produce almost four times more eggs per plant on milkweed within agricultural fields than on milkweed growing elsewhere.
“Milkweed growing in Midwest cropland is essential to the monarch’s continued survival. Without milkweed, we’ll have no monarchs,” said . Martha Crouch, Ph.D., biologist with Center for Food Safety and co-author of the report. “Very few of us fully understand the ecological impacts of our food system, but we need to pay attention. The decline of the monarch is a stark reminder that the way we farm matters.”
As the monarch population declines other threats have greater impacts, and the butterflies are less likely to bounce back from adversity. For example, a winter storm in 2002 killed an estimated 468-500 million monarchs. A similar storm today could completely eliminate today’s much reduced monarch population.
Environmental groups, led by Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a legal petition with FWS to protect monarchs as threatened under ESA in August. In November, 40 leading scientists and over 200 environmental groups and businesses sent a letter to FWS in support of the petition. In December 2014, the Service responded to this petition request and announced that ESA listing may be warranted, an important first step towards securing stronger protections for monarch butterflies. While obtaining ESA listing is paramount, numerous interim and additional policy recommendations are listed at the end of Center for Food Safety’s report.
The decline of monarch habitats is not the only environmental effect linked to the pervasive use of highly toxic herbicides and insecticides. For example, the emergence and spread of glyphosate-resistant “super weeds” is strongly correlated with the upward trajectory of herbicide use, according to a study conducted by Charles Benbrook, Ph.D. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup formulation, is one of the most widely used conventional pesticide active ingredients in the U.S. And, similar to monarch butterflies, honey bees and other wild bees have also been experiencing a drastic decline in numbers that has been linked to the prevalent use of neonicotinoids.
Critical to the survival of monarchs, other pollinators, and organisms essential to ecological balance is the large-scale adoption of organic farming practices. Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship and a reduction in hazardous chemical exposures for workers on the farm. The pesticide reform movement, citing pesticide problems associated with chemical agriculture, from groundwater contamination and runoff to drift, views organic as the solution to a serious public health and environmental threat. To attract beneficial insects like monarchs and protect their habitats in your own backyard, there are several steps you can take. Like any other living organisms, pollinators need food, water, and shelter in order to thrive. For more information, see Managing Landscapes with Pollinators in Mind and Hedgerows for Biodiversity: Habitat is needed to protect pollinators, other beneficial organisms, and healthy ecosystems. You can also visit the BEE Protective Habitat Guide and Do-It-Yourself Biodiversity for more ways in which you can protect our pollinator friends.
With one in three bites of food reliant on bees and other insects for pollination, the decline of honey bees and other pollinators due to pesticides, and other man-made causes demands immediate action. For more on this and what you can do to protect pollinators, visit Beyond Pesticides’ BEE Protective webpage.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.