Sunday, February 23, 2014

Monarchs and Monsanto - a plea to think (and grow more milkweed and eat more insects).

The last few years has seen discussion of a rather worrying trend in declining numbers of monarch butterflies. One fairly obvious reason for the decline would appear to be a decline in the milkweeds (Asclepias species) on which they feed. This is because farmers are now so efficient at eliminating all weeds from their fields.

Cue a hysterical reaction. Like this.

I have long thought that environmentalists are often bad for the environment and this is a good example. The complete failure to think through some basics on this issue is spectacular. As is the refusal to take responsibility for one's own eating habits. Why take responsibility when you can blame an easy scapegoat. Like Monsanto. Just mention the company and you get an instant knee-jerk reaction – with an associated brain disconnect. Blaming Monsanto avoids actually looking at the issue.Which is what I intend to do here.

Furthermore, the easiest solution to this problem is so obvious its ridiculous, and it is something which directly involves gardeners and the landscape industry. 

As anyone who grows their own veg can tell you, weeds compete with your crops and you have to minimise them. Farmers have to do this to survive commercially, something organic growers know as well as conventional. So can we blame farmers for using an effective herbicide like Roundup? Or combining the herbicide with crops which are genetically modified to resist the chemical?

And why do the farmers of the Midwest grow so intensively? Or indeed any farmers?

Well there are rather a lot of us. And as living standards rise, which they are rather doing strongly in many poorer countries, one of the first things people do is eat more meat. Meat production is an inefficient converter of plant material to animal: chickens aren't too bad, pigs and sheep are not so good, but beef cattle are terrible. In other words, farming needs to be intensive to provide us with the diet we have chosen. If you eat meat every day, it's no good blaming Monsanto for selling Roundup and Rounup-Ready crops, you should take responsibility for the disappearing milkweed. And don't say that you only eat local grass-fed beef, or some other politically correct feel-good foodie excuse. Do you suppose that organic beef farmers let toxic milkweed grow all over their fields?

An alternative sounds attractive. Less intensive farming, wildflower strips, higher weed populations. Yes, all well and good. Except that the demand for crops is still there, and they have to come from somewhere. Reducing intensity leads to a trade-off effect – a need for more arable land. And that is one thing we don't have much of left. Arable land is actually declining globally. We also do not want to sacrifice any more wild landscapes, forests, wetlands etc. We simply have to get the most out of what arable land we have.

I have driven around Iowa a bit (whilst researching at Ames Uni. and attending the World Food Prize, some years ago) - it is the quintessential Midwest farming state, and one where monarch butterfly populations and milkweed have notably fallen. And do I remember roadside to roadside crops? Every patch of ground covered in soya or corn? Er no actually. I seem to recall that like much of the rest of the USA there is an awful lot of mown grass. Vast areas of the stuff in fact. Alongside roads, around houses, offices, churches, shops there seems to be endless acres of this utterly useless vegetation. You can't eat it, cows can't eat it, wildlife can't live on it, and it needs mowing all the time. Why not plant wildflowers, include lots of milkweed of course. Problem solved. There is space for milkweed AND crops.

On a slight change of subject, we would all live more lightly on the earth if we ate not just less meat, but er.... more insects. They are fantastically efficient converters of plant to animal protein. In Mexico last week I tried chapulines – grasshoppers, and even brought some back with me. Delicious AND sustainable!!!


A said...

Last year was very different from the previous ones as far as Monarch butterflies are concerned. There was a crash in Monarch population. For many years we have maintained a very large patch of asclepias especially for them and every year we saw at least 50 of them. Last year we saw two. Everyone reports the same thing. From being still relatively common in 2012, there were hardly any in 2013. We can only hope they are a bit more numerous this summer.

Fiona said...

Great post Noel. The Lawn Reform Coalition doesn't seem to be making the impact one might have hoped. This map shows lawn surface area in the US; three times the number of acres as are covered by irrigated corn crops. And look at the concentration of lawns in Southern California, Texas, and Florida--all places where lawns need to be on life support to survive. (

mrbrownthumb said...

Thank you for writing this. I've been saying similar on Twitter, but everyone finds it easier to blame Monsanto than take responsibility.

Sandy said...

It's going to be tough to break the North American love affair with lawns, and you're right - we all want someone else to fix the problem. It's going to take the creativity and influence of garden designers to break that grip, and that's still not happening. I refer you to a talk I attended yesterday at Toronto Botanical Gardens:

FantasticGardener said...

The first steps towards this change are surely the global awareness. However, I don't think that Monsanto is the scape goat in this situation. It's just another part of a larger problem. If someday, the public awareness grows enough and people decide to use the land efficiently, I would be the last person to support Monsanto on their conquest.

Aaron Dalton said...

I do believe you're right that changing lawns to gardens would help a *great* deal in supporting Monarchs and other wildlife.

On the other hand, I don't think we can let ourselves off the hook with regard to pesticide usage either.

Perhaps if we consumers were willing to pay a bit more for our food, farmers would be willing to use manual weed-control techniques.

Instead, we want cheap food, I guess so we have money leftover to spend on other goods (clothing, electronics, etc.)

At least in the U.S., I believe the proportion of income spent on food is far below where it used to be in the mid-20th Century.

We've gotten addicted not just to meat and fast food, but to cheap food, and that's (part of) what's hurting the planet.