The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is a highly threatened species, nearing the brink of extinction. Hard to believe of a beloved insect that has brightened our yards and fields for generations. And before Europeans arrived in the Americas, monarch butterflies were here, in the millions and hundreds of millions. Today they are teetering on collapse.
What has caused this disaster for the monarch butterfly? Many factors contribute, making the problem difficult to deal with. Part of the trouble is the specialized lifestyle of the insect and its dependence on a few plant species for survival.
Milkweed pod with seeds
In the US, there are two monarch populations, one west of the Rocky Mountains and one east. The western butterflies winter on the California coast. The eastern ones winter in Mexico, on a particular tree, the oyamel. This fir tree occurs in the mountain cloud forest and is suspectible to climate change and lumbering. In summer, the Eastern monarchs migrate north and depend on milkweed (primarily the common Asclepias syriaca) for food. The larvae eat the leaves of only this particular plant. Milkweed range, especially in the Midwest, has been reduced by over 50%, mostly due to the emergence of genetically modified corn and soybean crops. These engineered crops are resistant to glyphosate, Roundup, herbicide. Milkweed is not. Where milkweed once flourished among the corn and soy, not to mention on what was once open, unfarmed land, now there is no milkweed. It has been eradicated by plowing for cropland and herbicide. A class of insecticides, neonicotinoids, also threaten pollinators such as bees and butterflies, yet the manufacturers agitate for its use on crops.
The push to produce corn (bio-engineered corn that is easy to farm due to the use of herbicides) mainly for making bio-diesel, has greatly reduced the plant monarch butterflies need to survive. Hence, the monarchs are greatly reduced. Last year saw the lowest number of recorded monarchs returning to the Mexican wintering grounds.
This alarming loss of a species spurred a request to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in August of this year to list the monarch butterfly as endangered. Such a listing would necessitate protective steps. Call me a cynic, but I fear this federal agency will bow to the overwhelming money of corporate giants like Monsato (producer of Roundup and genetically modified corn), and find that the butterflies are doing just fine. This agency has till late November to make a decision. I’m not holding my breath. America is lousy with powerful politicians who care little for the measly monarch butterfly but care a lot about money.
I’ve introduced a new offering to my Etsy online store, aimed at helping the monarch in some small way. Here at Phoenix Farm, where things are done organically, we have a healthy supply of milkweed. This fall I sustainably harvested seeds from the wild plants growing along our fencelines and the edges of our fields and orchards. The seeds are for sale at a nominal fee to encourage milkweed planting. I am donating my time to gather and process these seeds for sale.
To further help the monarchs, and the earth in general, I have decided to eliminate all genetically modified organisms–GMOs–from our diets and lives, as much as is humanly possible. Humans create the bio-engineered products thinking mostly about profit. The impact on the environment receives little attention. What starts as a great idea in the lab becomes a monster once unleashed on the world. I’ve decided to just say no to GMOs.
Eating and buying organic, mainly certified organic, is the best way to guarantee GMOs are not included. Even then, minute traces of these inventions, what I think of as pollutants, are still present. They have invaded the environment and are difficult to remove…like most chemicals and pollutants humans have devised.
Many voices decry the approaching food scarcity and point to it as an incentive for genetically modified organisms. These bio-engineered wonders will increase food production, experts wail, to fuel an ever-growing human population. I say we face not a food crisis, but an overpopulation crisis. Humans are over-running the world and pushing out all other species. The excessive numbers of our species is irresponsible. Such lack of foresight and failure to conserve resources seems innate human behavior. To continue enjoying a natural world containing creatures like the monarch butterfly, we must find a way to control ourselves. I hold out scant hope for the butterfly.