Monsanto v. Monarch butterflies

| March 25, 2013 |
Credit: Flickr/Sids1 Credit: Flickr/Sids1

Monarch butterfly populations have been on a downward spiral for decades, and the most recent news stories report that monarch numbers have reached an all-time low this year.

There are several reasons why monarchs are a threatened species—including deforestation, parasitism, and ebbing populations of the milkweed plants they depend on. But a new study has reignited the debate over whether or not genetically modified crops are playing a role in the monarch’s decline. Last week the headlines claimed that “GMO Crops Are Killing Butterflies.” Here’s what Grist had to say about it:

We’re all familiar with Big Ag’s bad reputation of picking on small-scale and organic farmers. Now Monsanto and its cronies are beating up an even more innocuous set of victims: beautiful, defenseless monarch butterflies.

Blaming GM crops for monarch declines is nothing new. The controversy began in 1999, when a paper in Nature concluded that pollen from Bt corn—which is genetically modified to carry a Bacillus thuringiensis gene that allows the corn to produce a toxin meant to kill pest insects—could kill monarch butterfly caterpillars. The study was discredited by 2001, but in the interim, “the monarch butterfly rapidly became a public symbol of the environmental hazards of GM crops,” says a report from the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, monarch declines sparked the first discussion of GMO food labels, according to the CFR report.

The US Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture held the first Congressional hearings on GM foods and in November 1999, legislation was introduced in Congress requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. The FDA held a series of hearings throughout the United States to reexamine whether GM foods should be considered an additive, thus requiring mandatory labeling, as well as to explore the need for further testing to ensure consumer safety. For its part, the EPA began to review its policies about whether genetically modified seeds should be subject to pest control regulations. And in January 2000, EPA directed companies marketing corn that produces Bt toxin to request that farmers voluntarily plant a buffer zone of traditional corn as a protection for monarch butterflies.

Responding to the widespread fear, the National Academy of Sciences launched a major risk assessment study published in 2001 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which ran a series of articles evaluating the effects of biotech corn on monarch butterflies in the wild. The researchers concluded that Bt-corn’s impact on monarch butterfly populations is “negligible.”

Rick Hellmich, an entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service and co-author of the follow-up report, told National Geographic that “butterflies are safer in a Bt cornfield than they are in a conventional cornfield, when they’re subjected to chemical pesticides that kill not just caterpillars but most insects in the field.”

The latest hubbub over GMOs and butterflies centers around a recent study in Insect Conservation and Diversity. The study does not actually test the hypothesis that GMOs are behind the monarch declines. Instead, the authors’ main conclusion is that “a loss of agricultural milkweeds is a major contributor to the decline in the monarch population.”

GMOs come into the picture because the article cites a 2010 paper which found that milkweed populations on farms declined dramatically between 1999 and 2009, at the same time that Roundup Ready crops were becoming widespread in the Midwest. Roundup Ready crops are engineered to be herbicide-resistant so that farmers can apply weed killers without damaging their crops. The 2010 paper reasons that the widespread adoption of herbicide-resistant crops likely led to increased use of weed killer, and that milkweed populations may have suffered as a result.

The argument seems logical, but it’s not iron-clad proof—correlation does not prove causation, and there don’t appear to be any controlled experiments that compare milkweed growth rates near Roundup Ready crops versus non-GM crops. Even assuming that modern, GM-using farming techniques are responsible—indirectly—for an increased decline in monarch butterflies, it’s still not the same as GM crops killing the insects outright.

Bottom line: It’s the farmers that are responsible, not the technology they’re using. Milkweed is after all a weed, and since weeds decrease yield, farmers always have and always will fight them. Most of the world is fed via conventional farming whose aim is to maximize efficiency and output. It’s unfortunate, but there really isn’t much room for biodiversity in conventional farming, especially for plants without a clear economic value like milkweed.

Some have proposed that we could protect milkweed plants, or that biotech companies could engineer a Roundup-resistant milkweed variety. A New York Times article from 2011 suggests that it is “unrealistic to expect farmers to give up the herbicide-tolerant crops — so efforts should be made to preserve or grow milkweed elsewhere, perhaps on farmland set aside for conservation.” Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to studying and protecting the butterflies, says people can help by creating monarch habitats in home gardens, at schools, businesses, parks, along roadsides, and on other unused plots of land.

Grist’s article may exploit the specter of Big Bad agriculture, but it gets one thing right: “at this rate, if we’re going to save monarchs, we may need to make it a national priority to cultivate milkweed outside of farms.”

  • Disqusted

    The whole friggin point is that there is a better way to grow crops! Monarch habitat has disappeared due to the way farmers are growing the GMO crops…thus we are now at the lowest level of Monarch butterflies ever in our history. It is going to take a combination of planting milkweed anywhere possible to save the species.

    • sally

      So you want farmers to make even less money than they already do by allowing weeds to grow where they shouldn’t? Weeds harbor harmful insects that destroy crops, and sometimes those insects carry diseases from one crop field to another. Allowing weeds to thrive means higher costs for consumers, and even if that doesn’t bother you, there are a lot of people who cannot afford to pay more for food.

      • Missy

        Either pay more for safe nutritious organic food now…………or pay the doctors and hospitals later

        • http://www.facebook.com/thomas.a.hanson Thomas Alan Hanson

          Is this a serious comment? Is the author unaware of the numerous studies showing the negligible difference between organic and conventional food in terms of nutrition? (The well-publicized Stanford study is only the most recent,) It’s mere superstition to believe that “natural” pesticides are less harmful to human health than “synthetic” ones. (Read the chapter “The Organic Fetish” in the book ‘Denialism’ by Michael Specter, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.)

          • nogeeksadmin

            You are in denial.

    • dscarla

      Apparently you didn’t understand the article, if you insist that, “Monarch habitat has disappeared due to the way farmers are growing the GMO crops.”

  • PaulCherubini

    Monarch butterflies were actually spectacularly abundant on the GMO corn and soybean farmlands of the upper Midwest in 2011 and 2010: south-central Minnesota:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jhKBj3rRt0
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iatYTlT1qYQ

    2010 south-central Minnesota:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4e3S2sm13g
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJCnU7PB9to

    So despite the widespread adoption of GMO crops, monarchs continue to be abundant on the GMO farmlands of the upper Midwest USA. Why? Because milkweed and wildflowers are still commonly found along in the field margins and ditches:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKmDId55pfc
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MqrvAxTl0I

    Also, last August I shot this 16 minute video showing the abundant bees and butterflies (including monarch butterflies) that could be found along the margins of these GMO corn and soybean fields: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZCOJnJU1UE

    The point of these videos is to show that despite the widespread adoption of GMO crops, monarchs and bees continue to be abundant on the GMO farmlands of the upper Midwest USA along the field margins, hence they are not hardly threatened.

    • nogeeksadmin

      “Hence they are not hardly threatened” So you are disputing that Monarchs are dwindling! What division of Monsanto do you work for? Propaganda Division?

      • tweenk
        • nogeeksadmin

          Are you a Corporatist, or just an Equine Gentleman?

        • nogeeksadmin

          Thanks for posting that entry, by the way. It shows all the dumping of Mercury and PCB’s by this hideous polluter.

      • Horace Boothroyd III

        This kind of knee jerk anti-science denialism is ruining the America that I love.

        • nogeeksadmin

          There is nothing “anti-science” in taking a moderate stance against the ingestion of chemicals and the destruction of the ecosystem for the gain of one or two corporations. Your knee-jerk characterization of me as a hippie is absurd.

          • knarf2011

            The gain of one or two corporations? I think you left out a group: all of the people who can be fed with increased crop yield from GMO’s. Also, the GMO’s that produce pesticides produce a natural pesticide that is not harmful to humans, and replace pesticides that have to be used in larger numbers and can harm every organism in the animal kingdom.

          • thinkingforyourself

            its not about producing more food its about who’s going to get to produce and supply that food to the marketplace, thereby profiting. Food shortages have nothing to do with an inability to produce enough food, its comes from distribution problems which are mainly caused by that very interference from political entities trying to keep that profit in the hands of their own constituents.

      • knarf2011

        Nobody said that Monarchs aren’t endangered, only that it isn’t because of GMO’s. Also, getting that furious only makes it harder for people to listen to reason and decide if they might have been wrong.

        • thinkingforyourself

          no, they said they don’t know if its because of Monsanto, but that what evidence is available raises the possibility that it does effect them obliquely, if not directly. Learn to read.

    • Guest

      We’re coming up on 2014, where are they?

  • Donna
  • Donna

    The GMO HERBICIDE resistant crops that are having 1000’s of gallons of herbicides dumped on them that MONSANTO owns, WOULD have an effect on the milkweed populations. Therefore, that would be a GOOD scientific reason to BLAME GM CROPS!

    • Guest

      Not only that, but the butterflys that drink the nectar from gmo crops have been shown to have compromised immune systems.

      • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

        Could you provide a link to a peer reviewed journal article that substantiates this…this “claim” has been made before and no evidence has ever been presented.

      • DNADEB

        Monarch butterflies feed on nectar from Ag crops??? I doubt it you can show proof of this.

    • Horace Boothroyd III

      Actually, the issue is that farmers are pushing their fields out to put every last scrap of land under cultivation – crowding out the last bits of open grassland that used to support a viable milkweed habitat. It doesn’t matter if they use wooden ploughs or sophisticated pesticide regimes, the net effect is that expanded acreage equals fewer milkweeds.

      If you are truly concerned about the plight of the monarch butterfly, or the ecosystem as a whole, stop whining about Monsanto and GMO food and get to work establishing land banks to give nature a place to breathe.

      • thinkingforyourself

        actually that’s not true, arable land use is decreasing in the US as agriculture is consolidated into fewer hands and larger industrial type operations. The whole point of Monsanto crops is to need less land and investment to grow their crops, so they don’t lose as much, the same amount of harvest can come from less land..dummy. Monsanto is pushing that itself as it sues farmers out of existence who don’t favor their copyrighted crops yet have their own crops cross pollinated by those growing Monsanto’s. I would bet that we would find Monsanto is a major investor in the larger agribusinesses as well., as they would be fools not to.

  • nogeeksadmin

    Who wrote this article? Monsanto? Pathetic.

    • tweenk

      What’s pathetic is your paranoia that everyone who does not agree with you is bribed.

      • nogeeksadmin

        Hi Twerk,

        I don’t agree with you, bribery has absolutely nothing to do with it. I just think your comment is laughable, that’s all. Don’t be so paranoid. :)

        • Rath

          I think you’re paid by the organic lobby to try to scare stupid people. Probably a stooge of the discovery science institute trying to fight scientific literacy to increase the amount of money taken from the gullible. I mean you can’t honestly believe your own drivel. You’ve got to be a paid spokesman of big stupid.

          • Horace Boothroyd III

            Nailed it!

            And Big Stupid, I’m going to remember that one.

    • knarf2011

      Saying that this must have been written by Monsanto because it suggests that GMO’s are not harmful is a perfect example of self-securing ignorance – when one of the beliefs of a side of an issue is that all evidence disproving their other beliefs is automatically false. This does not allow any way for members of that side to listen to reason.

  • Rath

    As opposed to the known fake studies paid for by the 15 billion dollar a year organic lobby? The fake french cancer studies? The giant peer reviewed metastudy from stanford must obviously be a fraud I mean it’s got data behind it and doesn’t rely on finger pointing and feer mongering. Go back to your bomb shelter and tin foil hat, chicken little.

    • nogeeksadmin

      Stick it in your ear, clown.

  • Dr. James

    I have been following and tagging Monarchs for some 55 years and seen the devastating effects of Monsanto’s Frankenseeds on the populations. I encourage people to plant milkweed in their spare land. Here in San Diego I have them breeding in my backyard all year round.

    Although attempts have been made to protect their habitat in Michoacan, corruption and poverty have proven to be quite fruitless. Serious policing must take place there, and other areas.
    Monsanto must be told that we, nature, will not take it any more. Their migration is one of the most amazing phenomenon Earth has to offer.

    As far as Global Warming’s very significant contribution to their demise, nothing will be done until icebergs are floating down Wall Street. I well imagine that they would market them as ice cubes.

    Please pass the word and get planting.

    R. James, PhD

    • Horace Boothroyd III

      You don’t read very well, not for a PhD. Perhaps you should have another look at the article at the top of this very page.

      • thinkingforyourself

        don’t go to so much effort to prove your ignorance, its shows readily with much less effort than you’re putting forth.

    • Mflint22

      Well said, Sir.

  • Horace Boothroyd III

    Buddy, you are not doing your side any favors with your foul mouth and your ignorance.

  • nogeeksadmin

    “It’s unfortunate, but there really isn’t much room for biodiversity in conventional farming, especially for plants without a clear economic value like milkweed.”

    And THAT attitude is where we have drawn a line in the sand. Don’t you DARE belittle the concept of biodiversity. You are DANGEROUS.

  • FDWeb

    How is it the header of this article professes to avoid ideology but then arbitrarily points blame at farmers for killing off milkweeds? Farmers will use whatever tools they’re given to maximize profit. When science continues to hand farmers tools that cause problems, part of the fault is still firmly fixed to the technology. There is a very clear bias in this article that that GMOs are somehow inevitable in the field and that there are not and will never be any other options. The question about the role of GMOs in milkweed decline is still firmly on the table until those studies have been completed. If GMOs are to blame, all the parties responsible for their production and use are then indirectly responsible for monarch butterfly decline.

  • carl k

    I am always fascinated how an article in a journal with the prestige of Nature is “discredited”. These major journals have review boards it does not mean that an experiment is absolutely true but the term “discredited” means is was like a bad study which means “Nature” was not doing its job. bad journal

  • knarf2011

    Don’t yell at people for calling you ignorant. They just might be right, and the only way to find truth is to accept that possibility and reconsider all of the evidence that supports or contradicts what you think.

  • Stacy

    A great deal of this corn is used to create ethanol. Converting soil to food energy and converting food energy into industrial energy is feeding nobody. Its lining the pocketbooks of the petrol industry (like they’re not getting enough in the first place) and fueling the inexhaustible lust for MOAR ENERGY!

  • Dave Bailey

    The use of glyphosate resistant crops can help save monarch butterflies. In many areas milkweed has been classified as a noxious weed, which means that if it’s anywhere near agricultural land it will be destroyed. But with GMOs, glyphosate can be applied directly to the crop fields, and the surrounding areas can be left alone. Some areas have already removed milkweed from the noxious weeds list. These anti-everything idiots don’t bother to think any further than GMO BAD!!!

  • Clondaw

    Greedy America will eventually destroy biodiversity and economies everywhere just wait and see. Disgusting!

  • Clondaw

    The self defeating aim is to bombard wild plants on which pollinating insects depend with ever stronger poisons. Where are the bees? Where is common sense? What sort of world will our grandchildren inherit if Nature remains unprotected you bloody fat Americans!

  • Mflint22

    Is this scientist paid by the GMO industry ? Is so, his findings would be tainted by this affiliation

  • Jason Shwagner

    What kind of no life messed up excuse for a human would get on here and post any kind of defense for Monsantos corporate behavior? I can see it if you work for and make a great living off of them but those of you who don’t, wtf is your agenda? How on earth can you possibly think that it is ok? I am all for corporate business. I am all for profits and expansion, and invention. But with huge profits come huge responsibility, and Monsantos record is abysmal on it’s part to keep the footprint small on its environmental impact. I find it hard to believe there are so many people out there who apparently have minimal ability to think for themselves, and swallow whole the propaganda and misinformation campaigns Monsanto is behind. Spend an hour on Google for $#€ ks sake and do some research and see who is behind the lies. Monsanto is not a responsible corporation. You will see what they are about. If not, well the world has use for stupid people too I guess..

  • TD H

    Taking the point that there is no iron-clad proof that milkweed decline has as a major contributor GM crops, the argument that “the farmers are responsible, not the GM crops” is as patently absurd as “guns don’t kill people, people do.” Well, the guns help. And here’s an unintended consequence. There’s a lot of psuedoscience around on GM crops, but such poor argumentation doesn’t do anything to dispel it – and discredits the valid arguments.