The recent history of the Monarch butterfly is a story of applied science. The eastern Monarch makes a grand journey from central Mexico to Canada, then back to Mexico. What is truly amazing about it is that it takes several generations – the butterfly that travels to central Mexico is the great-grandchild of the Butterfly that had started the journey. The western Monarch spends the winter in central California then summer in the Rockies, and returns to California. It’s an incredible journey for such a small, light creature.
If that wasn’t story enough – there’s more.
There were a billion Monarchs in 1996, but the population is now about 30 million. Their decline began around the time that GMO corn was introduced, and one study indicated that GMO corn pollen could be the culprit. There was an outcry but further study showed the risk was small and went away as the variety of corn was improved.
Even so, the butterflies continued to lose ground. Scientists and activists on all sides of the GMO issue worked on the problem. It soon became clear that a major factor was habitat loss. As the human population grew the Monarch’s only food source – milkweed – became scarce. Roadsides were being mowed, more land was under cultivation, and milkweed was considered too be an obnoxious plant and not welcome anywhere.
As this problem gained recognition, several groups went to work on solutions. The US Fish and Wildlife Service created citizen scientist programs which help monitor the health of the species by volunteers and professionals. Federal funds were dedicated to create milkweed gardens on public land, and several nonprofit groups have been created to assist with the effort. Monsanto itself launched a program to assist with restoring natural habitat for the Monarchs, and donated 4 million dollars to the cause.
The threat isn’t over but things are improving for the Monarch. But both the anti- and pro- GMO folks now know the problem wasn’t GMO corn, it was habitat loss – we need more milkweed. Isn’t it amazing what can happen when we stop screaming at each other and work together to solve problems?
Previously published on the Western View from AgNet West.