Orange is beautiful on pumpkins and butterflies. Every summer, the familiar beauty of the Monarch butterfly with its striking orange color graces lawns and gardens and fields across the U.S. But this iconic butterfly now faces possible extinction due to severely shrinking areas of natural habitat that have been converted to fields of GMO corn and soybeans.
Last winter the cluster of Monarchs wintering in Mexico shrunk to the smallest area in 20 years of record-keeping, from nearly 45 acres in their peak in 1996, to 1.65 acres–approximately the size of one and a quarter football fields. The yearly migration widely noted as one of the world’s great natural spectacles, is dwindling in numbers so fast that efforts are now underway to declare the Monarch an endangered species.
The Monarch’s fate is directly tied to the eradication of natural habitat, specifically the milkweed plant that once was common to fence rows throughout Midwestern farm country. “Productivity increases from modern farm technology” as so often spoken of, includes the conversion of thousands and thousands of acres to planting row crops, predominantly genetically modified herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans. Using GMO seed allows for blanket spraying of broad-spectrum herbicides for weed control over very large areas. The founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, Orley “Chip” Taylor, calculates that since 1996, the introduction of herbicide-tolerant soy and corn removed 150 million acres of land that could have borne milkweed. A 2013 mapping analysis performed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) showed that more than 36,000 square miles of wetlands and prairie—an area larger than Indiana—has been converted to cropland since 2008. The Monarchs are the most visible victims of the accelerated loss of natural habitat throughout the Midwest but not the only ones. A wide variety of pollinators and other insects, as well as the birds that feed on them are disappearing.