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Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Crops Tied to Butterfly Decline

RP Siegel | Wednesday March 14th, 2012 | 23 Comments

The great American satirist, H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” He might have been talking about biotechnology in general or Monsanto’s approach to controlling weeds using their Roundup Ready crops. But then again, it depends on which problem they were trying to solve: responsibly increasing crop yields, or increase their own herbicide sales.

By creating varieties of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, sugar beets, wheat, and now sweet corn that can tolerate direct application of its glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide, the company has seen a dramatic increase in sales of both the herbicide and the seeds.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, roughly five times as much of the weed killer was used on farmland in 2007 as in 1997, a year after the Roundup Ready crops were introduced. Department of Agriculture statistics show that 94 percent of the soybeans and 72 percent of the corn being grown in the United States are herbicide-tolerant.

But when you mess with Mother Nature and the complexities of the ecosystems that are responsible for us all being alive, you need to be prepared for unintended consequences.

The latest oops, in Monsanto’s growing list, after the recent study linking Roundup with birth defects, is the elimination of large numbers of monarch butterflies from the landscape. Does Roundup kill butterflies? No, it doesn’t. It simply kills everything that butterflies like to eat: milkweed plants in particular. A 2011 study in Insect Conservation and Diversity found that the heavy Roundup use associated with GMO crops in Mexico, where North American butterflies overwinter, has contributed heavily to a 17-year decrease in monarch populations.

Dr. Chip Taylor, an insect ecologist at the University of Kansas claims that the milkweed has disappeared from hundreds of millions of acres of row crops. The use GMO corn, with its associated herbicide is considered a major cause of the monarch’s decline, along with the loss of milkweed to land development, illegal logging at the wintering sites in Mexico, and severe weather.

Andrew Davis at the University of Georgia, disputes the fact that monarchs are declining based on observations he’s made in Cape May, NJ.

But it stands to reason that if you eliminate an animal’s primary food source, as well as their nursery ground (monarchs like to lay their eggs on milkweed so that the caterpillars can feed on them), their population will be adversely impacted. Researchers Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and John M. Pleasants of Iowa State agree that the monarch decline is due to loss of milkweed.

This is a classic systems failure that results from focusing on narrow, short term goals. At the risk of getting a little technical here, let me quote from this month’s Mechanical Engineering. Shannon Flumerfelt of Oakland University, writing about complex systems and their design, says that, “Systems operate under the principle that the sum of interdependent elements holds inherently different characteristics and outcomes from those of the individual elements; this is the crux of complex adaptivity. In other words, one may understand elements of a system and have the ability to respond to the state of those individual elements, but a systems approach requires the ability to envision and grasp all of the elements and their synergistic properties as holistic thinking.”

Monsanto, which took in upwards of $11 billion last year, is clearly not interested in holistic thinking. Not while responding to the state of individual elements is generating such a high rate of return.

And those that cheerlead for them on Wall Street, like InvestorPlace from which the following quote was taken, clearly don’t want them to  think or act holistically either.

In these days of overzealous government regulation — in which the EPA has virtually destroyed our domestic cement-making business, sending that sector’s stocks down considerably — you’d think the evildoers at Monsanto making (gasp) genetically modified seeds would have been keelhauled by now. It turns out that despite the unfriendly regulatory environment and enormous levels of bad press directed at Monsanto itself, the company continues to thrive. In fact, the FDA itself recently approved a new type of genetically modified corn seeds.

That’s what I’d call lobbying dollars well-spent, but that’s a story for another day.

[Image credit: Big Grey Mare~Back—But Barely: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


▼▼▼      23 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NPU7OVRQMPUUBCO5N2DDBIAQZE Michael

    I am sorry I am a Monsanto employee and I am not an evil doer. I don’t speak for the company but I object to your inaccurate story of reality. This is no harm coming from Monsanto Gm products. If farmers were worried about butterflies you could plant milkweed around fields. Good weed control maximizes yields and gets the most out of fewer acres. You don’t need to minize yields to feed the world. Look at what is happening in the EU where their yields are way down and they have to import a lot of their food often from, Africa. This is not sound ag policy. Gm crops save massive amount fo chemical insecticides being used every year. I can only speak for myself but if I thought any of this was harmful I would quit. I read these stories, almost works of fiction on the internet and I wonder how people manage to function in daily life. I can understand if someone just looked at the internet how they could get it so wrong. There is zero benefit for anyone to support GM crops. even those who use GM crops would like to pay nothing for them if they could and the companies that make the chemicals insecticides or herbicides would love Monsanto’s products to be degraded but the fact is farmers love them because they work

    • Dave Shires

      I agree that there are people who irrationally attack Monsanto and GM crops, but are you saying this Butterfly is not correct?  A glance through the various links seems pretty reasonable to me.  I’m not stating this as a critique, but Monsanto does not seem particularly interested in systemic thinking…

    • Sunny

      Michael, you speak just like a truly brainwashed Monsanto employee..’their yields are way down…’ NEWSFLASH: You are another corporate slave to the system..advocating and promoting a lifestyle that is so far from what we are designed to live in! Stop trying to justify Monsanto’s actions, quit your job and grow some round-up-free herbs..
      PEOPLE: We need to get away from this thinking and start planting in our own backyards (If blessed to have one) don’t use anything from Monsanto, grow and own your food and you will be better for it!

    • Rhartenstine

      Hey Michael, lets just attack an article legitimacy  with out posting any evidence to the contrary.
      Where is YOUR proof that this in fact is not true…?  Herbicides are KNOWN toxins and they Do kill invertebrates as well as plants and if they are killing invertebrates then they can do US harm as well…!   Part of the problems is that over zellous use of herbicides by morons have also caused problems with creating herbicide resistant plants just like over zellous use of anti-biotics by the meat industry has contributed to anti-biotic resistant bacteria.   Also excessive amount of herbicides in OUR drinking water will cause problems as well…  So what is the xolution to the herbicide resistant weeds Using more TOXIC herbicides???  Look bucko.. I am old enough to remember all the idiot benifits  of Agent Orange used in the Viet Nam war and that TOO was produced by the “great” Monsento Corp.   Yea producing poisons for a profit that kill plants and other things…!!!

    • ALBNYC
  • Awareness is key

    You may not be an evil doer… but Monsanto is a horrible corporation.  Not that it matters, almost the entire world is dependent upon their seeds.  Farmers globally suffer because of the interference of Monsanto.  Seriously… you read these “works of fiction” but shouldn’t one consider why so many people write these “works of fiction”?  It’s a proven fact that Monsanto is a global owner of our food sources… also proven that the company gains royalties (and can sue farmers for saving seed).  Soooo it forces dependence upon their product (because how can you prove natural development of crops is to blame for gm plants in your field? You can’t, and Monsanto wins).  This is not an irrational attack if anything a slight slippery slope argument, except that it is true and the progression to a slippery slope argument is something I won’t go into.  Monsanto is a global power which plays with our food source and forces small farmers to use their products or shuts them down…. and this doesn’t just happen in America.  Fiction my a$$.

  • Terri Sweeney

    So, anyone who opposes the green party line is evil.
    Is there any other argument offered?

    Butterflies needs weeds, humans need crops.
    You want fewer butterflies or fewer humans?

    I know the green answer.

    • ALBNYC

      We throw away 40% of the produce in this country. With a little less GREED everyone could be feed fine even with a 30% reduction in crops…

  • Whereliestruth

    The article doesn’t specify the extent to which Roundup Ready crops and the use of glyphosate herbicides contribute to the decline of insects. It seems probable that all agriculture results in weed reduction, and thus a reduction in certain flowers preferred by insects (Monarch butterflys in this example). Presumably, farmers used different herbicides before the advent of Roundup Ready crops. So the question remains whether genetically modified crops, per se, adversely affect butterflys to any greater degree than conventional crops with other means of weed control.

    If your agenda is to attack Monsanto or gmo crops, then blaming them for butterfly decline is probably as good a tactic as any.  But is doesn’t seem truthful.

    • RP Siegel

       ”According to the Environmental Protection Agency, roughly five times as
      much of the weed killer was used on farmland in 2007 as in 1997, a year
      after the Roundup Ready crops were introduced.” The point is that these crops encourage the use of more herbicides, since you can spray it directly on the plants. So the answer to your question is yes, the GM crops affect butterfly populations more adversely than conventional crops.
      If you look at the overall agricultural system, you can see that Monsanto has done a excellent job of catering to the needs of the (industrial) farmer, their customer, while completely disregarding the other elements of the system, (i.e. the environment, and the consumer).
      As a result they are very unpopular, but they are making lots of money.

  • A worried Mother against GMOs

    Michael…if you are a Monsanto employee you ARE an evil-doer.  I have been sick since 1993.  My doctor has advised me to avoid GMO foods.  Do you know how hard that is to do?  LABEL THE STUFF

    Also BT corn genes are showing up in fetuses.  This has the potential to ruin mankind forever.  I cannot think of any entity more evil than Monsanto.

    • Dave Shires

      Hogwash.  There is no way GM foods, specifically, can harm you.  The problem is industrial agriculture in general.  BT corn genes are NOT “showing up in fetuses”.  That is not physically possible and makes zero sense.  You have to get a better understanding of biology and genetics before you start to make an argument.

  • Whereliestruth

    It’s incorrect to assert that Roundup Ready crops encourage the use of more herbicides.  True, the EPA lists 180-185 million pounds of glyphosate (the active
    ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, and its generics) being used by
    U.S. agriculture in 2007, compared to 34-38 million pounds in 1997,
    which, as you say, is about 5 times more (http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/pestsales/). However, The same EPA report lists 12 other herbicides in use during the period, each with decreased usage in 2007 compared to 1997. Overall, herbicide use looks like it increased only about 0.18X from 1997 to 2007. Herbicides with active ingredients like trifluralin, pendmethalin, metolachlor, acetochlor and 2,4D declined in use between 72 – 5%. The U.S. acreage sown to corn, soybeans, cotton and canola (the 4 Roundup Ready crops introduced in this period) increased 3.75% (http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_Subject/index.php?sector=CROPS).
     None of these facts supports the assertion that Monsanto is partly responsible for the population decline of Monarch butterflies, although your title was the reason I read your piece, so I guess it worked on that level. I was disappointed that your article did nothing to inform the truth. Congratulations, though, on feeding the “Monsatan” crowd what they crave. Meanwhile, I still don’t know whether Monarch butterflies are in decline, nor how to help them if they are.
     On another note, what is an “industrial farmer”? Having dived into USDA’s ag statistics, I learned that 90+% of U.S. farms in 2011 are still operated by “individuals/families, sole proprietorship, family held corporations” and co-ops. That surprised me. Only 0.5% are “non-family corporations”.
     I encourage people with open minds to Google facts for themselves. Middlemen are, at best, a distraction. Caution to those of you who seem eager to invoke the word “evil” based on misinformation. I haven’t seen any evidence that fear and hatred leads to a better world.

    • A worried Mother against GMOs

      Regardless of any “facts”, why aren’t GMO foods LABELED???  Calories are labeled.  Red dye is labeled.  Fat content is not only labeled but broken down into saturated and unsaturated.  We have the right to make informed choiced based on LABELS.  But GMO is cloaked.  Other countries require labeling…or have completely banned GMO.  Here, the consumer is in the dark.  If GMO is so harmless, why aren’t the packages labeled here in the US??? 

    • A worried Mother against GMOs

      Oh…and I Googled.  93% of pregnant women are carrying the GMO DNA that was not supposed to stay in our bodies:

      http://www.google.com/#hl=en&sugexp=frgbld&gs_nf=1&cp=12&gs_id=18&xhr=t&q=gmo+pregnant+women&pf=p&sclient=psy-ab&oq=gmo+pregnant&aq=0v&aqi=g-v2g-j1&aql=&gs_sm=&gs_upl=&gs_l=&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=21c29f8385ce1946&biw=936&bih=557

      Monsanto needs to shut down.  GMO is ruining life.  And for what?  So the CEOs at Monsanto can drive shiny Limo’s?

      • Dave Shires

        What do you mean women are “carrying the GMO DNA” ?  That doesn’t make any sense.   The first article you reference talks about various toxins that are present in women’s bodies.  It has nothing to do with DNA.  Granted, it’s *not good*, and, like you, I am concerned about it, but it’s the herbicides that are the problem, not the GMOs.  

        • A worried Mother against GMOs

          The only published human feeding study revealed what may be the most dangerous problem from GM foods. The gene inserted into GM soy transfers into the DNA of bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function. This means that long after we stop eating GMOs, we may still have potentially harmful GM proteins produced continuously inside of us. Put more plainly, eating a corn chip produced from Bt corn might transform our intestinal bacteria into living pesticide factories, possibly for the rest of our lives.
          Source:  http://www.foodmatters.tv/_webapp/the%20truth%20is%20out%20on%20genetically%20modified%20foods%20-%20and%20it's%20not%20pretty

          There are so many articles, I can’t list them all.  However, the above states that we do carry the DNA from soy right along with us possibly for the rest of our lives.  Monsanto said this WOULD NOT HAPPEN.  Monsanto lied.

          I think GMO is going to make thalidomide and even Agent Orange (another Monsanto product, by the way) look like a walk in the park.  Monsanto is evil.  GMOs are evil.

        • Dave Shires

          No.  You don’t understand biology or genetics.  Genes do not “transfer” to anything except via actual sexual reproduction.  That is not possible if you eat something.  

          I share your concern that there may be proteins of other factors coming from certain foods that may have unknown side effects, but you have to get the science straight to have a real argument.

    • RP SIegel

       The amount of total acreage devoted to corn and soy may have only grown a few per cent, but the amount planted in Roundup Ready has grown for more than that. How else could 94 percent of soybeans and 72 percent of corn grown in the United States have become genetically modified? Roundup is a very broad spectrum herbicide that essentially kills everything (except for those weeds now developing resistance). Many of the herbicides they have replaced were more specific in their application. According to Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology,

      “Traditional weed-control regimes are not as great a threat because large
      numbers of milkweeds typically survive the herbicides applied to corn
      and soybeans. This is one of the problems that Monsanto and other
      companies set out to solve by engineering crops to resist herbicides,
      like glyphosate (Roundup). With the new crops, farmers can use
      broad-spectrum weed killers to rid fields of milkweed and other
      recalcitrant weeds which sprout after the crop has started to grow.
      Without engineered resistance, glyphosate can only be used to kill weeds
      before planting. As more and more herbicide-resistant crops replace
      traditional ones-nearly half the soybean crop is expected to be
      herbicide-resistant this year-milkweed stands could well decline,
      followed by a decrease in the monarch population.”

  • Rhartenstine
  • Anon

    Dave Shires, why would anyone want to eat anything that’s genetically modified in the first place?!?