By Dr. Mercola
Earlier this month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced a $3.2-million campaign to save “beleaguered” Monarch butterflies.1 As recently as 1996, there were close to 1 billion monarchs across the US. Today, their numbers have dwindled by 90 percent.
The crux of their campaign is restoring and enhancing monarch habitat, as habitat loss due to agricultural practices has played a role in their demise. More than 200,000 acres of habitat is slated to be restored for monarchs while the program is also planning over 750 schoolyard habitats and pollinator gardens.
It’s a good start, but there is something glaringly absent from the FWS announcement – Monsanto’s role in all of this.
Monsanto’s Glyphosate Is Killing Off Monarchs’ Favorite Plant
Milkweed is an easy target for glyphosate, the chemical in the herbicide Roundup that’s used prolifically on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready™ genetically engineered crops.
This perennial plant used to be common across American prairies, and it plays an integral role in monarchs’ survival. It is the only plant on which the adult monarch will lay its eggs.
Once the larvae hatches, the caterpillar will eat the plant. In fact, it is the only food that monarch caterpillars eat. Without milkweed along its migratory path, the monarch cannot reproduce – which means it cannot, ultimately, survive.
This is reason enough to take urgent action, but the loss of monarchs isn’t only about butterflies. According to FWS:
“Spectacular as it is, protecting the monarch is not just about saving one species. The monarch serves as an indicator of the health of pollinators and the American landscape.
Monarch declines are symptomatic of environmental problems that pose risks to our food supply, the spectacular natural places that help define our national identity, and our own health. Conserving and connecting habitat for monarchs will benefit other plants, animals and important insect and avian pollinators.”
‘Farming Per Se Is Not the Problem’
FWS acknowledges that agricultural practices have played a role in devastating monarchs’ habitat. But it’s not just farming that’s the problem – it’s the planting of GM crops, particularly corn and soy, and the subsequent application of Roundup that is killing off the butterflies.
According to a report, “Monarchs in Peril,” by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), “farming per se is not the problem,” as monarchs have coexisted with agriculture since the 1800s.2
Even as prairies and forests in the Midwest were converted to cropland, one particularly hardy species of milkweed, common milkweed, survived. Its deep, extensive root system allowed it to survive tillage, mowing, harsh winters, and even the application of most herbicides, which typically didn’t affect their roots. CFS noted:
“Thus, throughout the 20th century, common milkweed within and around corn and soybean fields has supported a large population of monarch butterflies.
In fact, in the late 1990s roughly half of the monarchs in Mexican winter roosts had developed on common milkweed plants in the Corn Belt, making this far and away the most important habitat for maintaining the monarch population as a whole.”
As of 2013, however, about 90 percent of soybeans and more than 80 percent of corn grown in the US are of the GM Roundup Ready variety. Between 1995, the year before the first Roundup Ready crops were introduced, and 2013, total use of glyphosate on corn and soybeans increased 20-fold, according to the CFS report.
Meanwhile, as usage of glyphosate has skyrocketed, milkweed has plummeted. In 1999, CFS noted that milkweed was found in half of corn and soybean fields, but this declined to 8 percent 10 years later. In 2013, it was estimated that just 1 percent of the common milkweed present in 1999 remained. Tragically, while milkweed is not harmed by many herbicides… it is easily killed by glyphosate. CFS reported:
“Recently… a dramatic change in farming practices — the widespread cultivation of genetically engineered, glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready corn and soybeans—has triggered a precipitous decline of common milkweed, and thus of monarchs.
Glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the name of Roundup, is one of the very few herbicides that is effective on milkweed. Unlike many other weedkillers, once absorbed it is translocated (moved internally) to root tissue, where it kills milkweed at the root and so prevents regeneration.
Glyphosate is particularly lethal to milkweed when used in conjunction with Roundup Ready crops. It is applied more frequently, at higher rates, and later in the season — during milkweed’s most vulnerable flowering stage of growth — than when used with traditional crops.
The increasingly common practice of growing Roundup Ready crops continuously on the same fields means that milkweed is exposed to glyphosate every year, with no opportunity to recover.”
Call for Monarchs to Be Added to the Endangered Species List
With 90 percent of monarchs vanishing since the 1990s, groups including the Center for Biological Diversity are calling for the butterfly to be placed on the endangered species list.
Meanwhile, rather than directing Monsanto to pay the costs of restoring Monarch habitat… and calling for an end to the elimination of milkweed from cropland, Dan Ashe, director of Fish and Wildlife Service, said that everyone is responsible for killing off monarchs:3
“We’ve all been responsible. We are the consumers of agricultural products. I eat corn. American farmers are not the enemy. Can they be part of the solution? Yes.”
Monsanto surely breathed a sigh of relief upon finding no mention of their herbicide in the FWS report and, not surprisingly, applauded it by saying “farming and habitat for Monarchs can co-exist.”4 Critics, however, believe the FWS is not going far enough to protect this valuable species.
For instance, CFS advocates restricting the spraying of glyphosate late in the growing season, when milkweed is flowering and more likely to be killed.5 According to Larissa Walker, pollinator campaign director at CFS:6
“While funding for efforts to restore milkweed habitat are essential to the monarch butterfly's survival, without addressing the eradication of milkweed within agricultural fields, monarch populations will not rebound to resilient, healthy levels.
Research has shown that monarch butterflies lay up to four times more eggs on milkweed within agricultural fields, and unfortunately, this vital breeding habitat has been destroyed by herbicides used in conjunction with genetically engineered crops.”
Honeybees Are Also in Danger
Like Monarch butterflies, honeybees have been declining in record numbers in recent decades, due to what has been dubbed “colony collapse disorder.” There is no price that can be put upon the work of bees, which pollinate one-third of the food we eat.
Just about every fruit and vegetable you can imagine is dependent on the pollinating services of bees. Apple orchards, for instance, require one colony of bees per acre in order to be adequately pollinated. Almond growers must have two hives per acre.
So far there have been enough bees to keep up with production… but just barely. Those in the industry describe an increasingly dire situation in which finding enough bees to pollinate crops is "chaos." One recent study found that worker bees who begin foraging prematurely perform very poorly, and this compounds the stresses on the colony and accelerates failure of the hive.7
Glyphosate may also play a role in bee colony collapse disorder. As stated by GMO expert Dr. Don Huber, there are three established characteristics of colony collapse disorder that suggest glyphosate may be (at least partly) responsible:
- The bees are mineral-deficient, especially in micronutrients
- There’s plenty of food present but they’re not able to utilize it or to digest it
- Dead bees are devoid of the Lactobacillus and the Bifidobacterium, which are components of their digestive system
The bees also become disoriented, suggesting endocrine hormone disruption. Neonicotinoid insecticides, which are endocrine hormone disruptors, have been demonstrated to make a bee disoriented and unable to find its way back to the hive – and have been implicated in bee die-offs. Glyphosate is also a very strong endocrine hormone disruptor. Dr. Huber also cited a study on glyphosate in drinking water at levels that are commonly found in US water systems, showing a 30 percent mortality in bees exposed to it.
No One’s Testing to See How Much Glyphosate Is on the Produce You Eat
If pesticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals are decimating pollinators, have you stopped to think about what happens when you eat them? Research has demonstrated that these agricultural chemicals are neurotoxic, capable of damaging your nervous system. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides, and 30 percent of insecticides are also carcinogenic.
All of these toxins are permitted on conventional farms, and any number of them can end up on your plate when you purchase conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how many pesticides and herbicides may be on your food and what the health consequences may be. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) insists pesticide residues on food are no cause for concern.
According to the agency's latest report, more than half of all foods tested last year had detectable levels of pesticide residues, but most, they claim, are within the "safe" range. Yet, the USDA does not test for glyphosate, which is the most commonly used herbicide in the US (and world)! It’s worth noting that 73 percent of conventionally grown foods had at least one pesticide residue, as did 23 percent of their organically grown counterparts. A US Government Accountability Office report also called into questioned pesticide residue reporting and testing, noting the following glaring issues:8
- The small percentage of produce tested (less than .01 percent of imported produce was tested in 2012)
- The lack of disclosure about what is not tested (i.e. glyphosate)
- The calculation methodology itself
Protest at Monsanto’s Headquarters: Monsanto Is Making Us Sick
At the end of January, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) joined Moms Across America (MAA) and others at a protest outside Monsanto’s corporate headquarters, the site of their annual shareholder meeting. OCA’s campaign “Monsanto Makes Us Sick” included speeches by medical doctors who summed up the scientific evidence against Roundup herbicide. At the shareholders meeting, MAA presented Monsanto’s CEO Hugh Grant with more than 500 testimonials of people describing how their health had been damaged by Roundup and its key ingredient glyphosate.9
At last year’s shareholder meeting, 10 peaceful protestors were arrested by police dressed in military fatigue uniforms. Rather than simply being on hand in case the protestors got out of control (which they did not), they actually engaged in intimidation games! If you’d like to get voice your opinion about Monsanto’s herbicides, or get involved with saving Monarchs and other pollinators, there are specific action steps you take below.
Action Step #1: Petition for Classifying the Monarch as 'Threatened'
A 2014 White House memorandum calling for a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators, by way of a multiagency Pollinator Health Task Force, has been introduced.10 The petition also urges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USDA and President Obama to protect the Monarchs' breeding habitat by halting the approval of Monsanto Roundup Ready™ and other glyphosate-resistant and pesticide-promoting GE crops. As noted by the Los Angeles Times:11
"Since federal glyphosate rules were last updated a decade ago, its use has spiked tenfold to 182 million pounds a year, largely due to the introduction and popularity of corn and soybeans genetically modified to resist the herbicide... ‘The tenfold increase in the amount of glyphosate being used corresponds with huge losses of milkweed and the staggering decline of the Monarch,’ said Sylvia Fallon, an NRDC senior scientist. 'We are seeking new safeguards desperately needed to allow enough milkweed to grow... The good news is that butterflies are resilient and can rebound quickly... All they need is milkweed on which to lay their eggs.'”
Action Step #2: Ask Retailers to Stop Selling Pesticide-Treated Plants
If you live in the US, I would also encourage you to contact your local Lowe’s store, either by phone or in person, and ask them to stop selling bee-killing pesticides and neonicotinoid-treated plants. Neonicotinoid pesticides are a newer class of chemicals that are applied to seeds and taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows, where it’s expressed in the pollen and nectar that pollinators consume. For contact information, see Lowe’s Store Locator page.
Action Step #3: You Can Support Bee and Butterfly Populations from Home
To avoid harming bees and other helpful pollinators that visit your garden, swap out toxic pesticide and lawn chemicals for organic weed and pest control alternatives. Even some organic formulations can be harmful to beneficial insects, so be sure to vet your products carefully. Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant an edible organic garden. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide good honeybee habitats. It's also recommended to keep a small basin of fresh water in your garden or backyard, as bees actually do get thirsty.
In order to support the Monarch butterflies, consider planting a locally appropriate species of milkweed in your garden, on your farm, or wherever you manage habitat. You can use the Milkweed Seed Finder to locate seeds in your area. Whatever you choose to grow, please avoid purchasing pesticide-treated plants. Cut flower growers are among the heaviest users of toxic agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, so if you must buy cut flowers, make sure you select only organically grown and/or fair-trade bouquets.
Ideally, you'll want to grow your own pollinator-friendly plants from organic, untreated seed, but if you opt to purchase starter plants, make sure to ask whether or not they've been pre-treated with pesticides. Plant a pollinator-friendly garden by choosing a variety of plants that will continue flowering from spring through fall; check out the Bee Smart Pollinator App for a database of nearly 1,000 pollinator-friendly plants. Be sure to choose plants native to your region and stick with old-fashioned varieties, which have the best blooms, fragrance and nectar/pollen for attracting and feeding pollinators.
Keep in mind that you also help protect the welfare of all pollinators every time you shop organic and grass-fed, as you are actually “voting” for less pesticides and herbicides with every organic and pastured food and consumer product you buy. You can take bee preservation a step further by trying your hand at amateur beekeeping. Maintaining a hive in your garden requires only about an hour of your time each week, benefits your local ecosystem—and you get to enjoy your own homegrown honey!