Monsanto, Blamed for Killing Monarchs, Donates Millions to Save the Butterflies

The ag giant this week announced nearly $4 million in donations to conservation programs.

A monarch butterfly on a milkweed plant. (Photo: Colin McConnell/'Toronto Star' via Getty Images)

Apr 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Having a perfect lawn is more than a matter of aesthetics for Dan Cullen and Mary Hardin: It’s good business too. After William Winkler Blackmore, my grandfather, died in 2007, the Hardins took over Blackmore Nursery, the landscaping company and sod farm he started in 1946. Between Dan and Mary’s house and the farm where my grandfather lived, north of Mason City, Iowa, are acres of pristine, weed-free sod—grass that’s cut into rolls, roots and all, and laid out across so many manicured lawns in northeastern Iowa.

The stretch of perfect grass in front of Dan and Mary’s, indistinguishable from one of the sod fields, may look very different in the near future. Instead of Kentucky bluegrass, it could soon be covered in knots of twining milkweed, the once-common weed that’s vital to the life cycle of monarch butterflies, which lay their eggs on milkweed and milkweed alone. But monarch habitat has been dissappearing over the last 20 years, in large part because of advances in agriculture, and the loss has sparked a steep decline in monarch populations. Now, Monsanto, seen by many as the antagonist to the monarch saga, says it wants to help—and is offering up a few of its many millions in order to do so.

On Tuesday, Monsanto announced that it is donating nearly $4 million toward monarch conservation efforts—$3.6 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund and another $1.2 million to match funds promised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the 1990s, a billion butterflies were making the epic annual migration from the forests of central Mexico to the plains states of the American Midwest and Canada. There are now an estimated 56.5 million monarchs remaining—a drop of 80 percent, according to the Xerces Society, a pollinator conservation group. Many place blame for the decline—which has led to calls for listing the butterfly as an endangered species—with the agrochemical companies selling the GMO seed for the corn and soy that blanket so much of the Midwest, and the weed killers the crops have been engineered to withstand. While milkweed used to grow alongside row crops, with little impact on yields, the increased use of herbicides such as glyphosate—20 million pounds were used in 1992, 250 million pounds in 2011—have made the once-pervasive weed something of a rarity. And in Iowa, where 30 million acres of the state’s total landmass of 36 million acres are cultivated, there’s little wilderness left that’s untouched by agrochemicals.

“While weed management has been a factor in the decline of milkweed habitat, the agriculture sector can absolutely be part of the solution in restoring it,” Brett Begemann, Monsanto’s president and COO, said in a statement. The company is also making $400,000 in grants available to other groups working on habitat biodiversity.

“The fact that we’re trying to restore this milkweed is very, very funny. It’s ironic, in fact,” said Claude Gascon, head of science and programs at NFWF. Like me, he remembers the abundance of milkweed—and monarchs—from a childhood in the southern Ontario province in Canada, near the northern end of the butterfly’s range. As the name suggests, he noted, this plant that’s suddenly in such demand among conservation circles is a weed.

But Gascon doesn’t see any irony in the Monsanto news—rather, he’s very sincere about the nonprofit’s newest partner in its efforts to protect the monarch.

“We partner with many corporations and try to find solutions to environmental problem,” he said. “They [Monsanto] do acknowledge that they have had a role, but they are in this to find solutions, and aren’t really here to point fingers. Quite frankly, we wouldn’t be here if they had put up a lot less money.”

The company’s $3.6 million donation to the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund won’t go toward any new milkweed plantings just yet. Gascon explained that the group is waiting on the U.S. Geological Survey to complete a commissioned plan for the habitat restoration project, which is expected in the next couple of months. With USGS’ recommendations for which areas along the migration route—from Texas to Canada—NFWF will put out a call for habitat restoration proposals. “We want to hit different kinds of restoration, from backyards to large agricultural land restoration projects” on both public and private land, Gascon said. The fund will provide seeds of the milkweed variety appropriate for the climate of a given area, as well as money to help facilitate the planting and maintenance of the projects.

“We hope to get money on the ground in late summer, early fall, which means there will be a lot of activity this fall for plantings that will produce milkweed plants next spring,” Gascon explained.

In Mason City, Dan Cullen is working on a similar schedule. Before tearing out the sod in front of the house, he has an eye on a triangular acre and a half, a shape unfriendly to farming, just down the road. This fall, he’ll plant it with stratified seeds, the small scars on the hulls ensuring that plenty of milkweed sprouts the following spring—which will mark two years since we had the memorial service for my grandmother, who the plot is, in part, a memorial for.

A lifelong Iowan, Alice Ann Blackmore loved the native prairie and the wildlife that also called the state home—habitat that incrementally disappeared over the course of her 93 years. If more lawns and strange corners of land—and perhaps some land that would otherwise be planted in corn or soy—goes the way of Dan and Mary’s property, that can slowly be reversed, and the monarchs can thrive once again.