The Monarch Butterfly Effect in Agriculture
For many years now, agriculture has gone out of its way to safeguard the health of the nation’s beneficial insects such as the honey bee. However, some industry insiders warn that protecting the monarch butterfly is equally important.
“Everyone knows honey bees are important to agricultural production for such crops as almonds and the industry has done a good job of stepping up in this area,” said Kellie Bray of CropLife America at a recent Mid America CropLife Association meeting. “But the monarch butterfly is for whatever reason the public’s favorite insect. But if the monarch is labeled as an endangered species, that has the potential to be a game-changer for agriculture.”
Although not a pollinator such as the honey bee for agricultural crops, monarch butterflies are nonetheless a fixture in crop fields across the U.S. I can attest to this fact myself. On one driving trip through the corn fields of Iowa a few years back, I saw thousands of monarchs moving between the green stalks.
Since at least the early 2000s, monarch butterfly populations have been dropping at an alarming rate, down approximately one-third its height in an early 2017 study/census. As recently as 2014, Dr. Lincoln Brower, a well-known monarch scientist, and certain activist groups have been petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to label the butterfly as an endangered species. At present, the agency is still evaluating this request.
Right now, the ultimate fate of this request is unknown. “But if the monarch butterfly is granted this status, it could be a big blow to how agriculture is done in this country,” warned Bray.
In the past few years, several agricultural suppliers have begun programs to promote monarch butterfly health and well-being. In fact, both BASF and Monsanto (now part of Bayer) have introduced programs encouraging growers and their ag retailers to set up milkweed reserves (which monarchs use to lay their eggs and grow as caterpillars) on the outskirts of their cropland.
Bray acknowledged these efforts. “There is probably more that can, and should be done, however,” she added.