Agriculture: Protecting the Monarch Butterfly

Monsanto Vice President Ty Vaughn discusses agriculture's impact on conserving monarch butterfly populations.
Jun 23, 2017 12:00 PM ET

I grew up working on my grandparent’s dairy farm in Ohio.  My father grew up on that farm and tells stories of his father paying him to pull milkweed out of their fields.  It was a weed that threatened their crops.  When I first started talking to him four years ago about the importance of reestablishing habitat, including milkweed, on agricultural lands, he thought I was crazy.  Now he’s rethinking his position.

Today’s monarch butterflies face a wide array of challenges. These threats include loss of breeding and food habitats, weather, predators, pathogens and parasites, and declining winter habitat in Mexico. However, I am not going to talk about the challenges facing monarchs – but, more importantly, discuss what agriculture is going to do to make a real positive impact on the monarch population.

The declining numbers call for action – not only are monarchs beautiful and special creatures, they are also pollinators. Both agriculture and biodiversity depends on pollinators, so we need them to thrive as much as they need our help to do so.

Agriculture plays a key role in helping to sustain the amazing monarch migration and the leadership and involvement of many people and organizations are critical factors for success.  Over the last several years, leaders in agriculture, conservation groups, federal agencies and the research community have been working together to examine the challenges the monarchs are facing and ultimately identify a path forward.

I am proud that Monsanto has been a part of these efforts. Because as stewards of the land across much of the monarch habitat, farmers and ranchers are in a strategic position to help and I believe it is imperative that the agricultural sector lead the way to promote more farmer and rancher engagement in monarch conservation. There is no doubt that we can pursue a landscape strategy that values both crop productivity and biodiversity- it is possible for agriculture to use farmland to produce crops to help nourish a growing world while also managing it to provide milkweeds and other habitat for monarchs.

Of course, we have a lot of work to do. In February, the World Wildlife Fund and the Mexican National Commission of Protected Natural Areas reported that the 2016-2017 overwintering monarch population covered about 7 acres. That is about 146 million monarchs, compared to a long-term average of 300 million. The Monarch Conservation Science Partnership recommends increasing the monarch population to an average of 15 acres to allow it to fluctuate and bounce back when challenged.

To help catalyze that vision, we partnered with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and U.S. Federal Agencies and to date have supported 47 projects and generated more than $20 million for habitat restoration, native seed production, and organization coordination and capacity. Working with Monarch Watch and the University of Kansas, we have donated 200,000 milkweed plants to provide quality habitat on priority landscapes. Other groups, such as Monarch Joint Venture, Monarch Watch, Pheasants Forever, and the Pollinator Partnership, also have important initiatives underway. Hundreds of thousands of acres of monarch habitat have already been restored, and we know there’s much more to do.

A large part of our focus at Monsanto is how can we produce more to feed a growing world population on a smaller agricultural footprint. What excites me is that innovations in agricultural practices and the application of data science and satellite imagery are helping to reduce environmental impacts, increase crop productivity, and make more land available for conservation efforts.

To allow for more habitat sites along field borders, conservation strips, riparian buffers, roadsides, easements, and rights-of-way, landowners need effective tools to manage weeds that might spread into crop fields. Only by producing enough to supply an increasing global food demand on a smaller agricultural footprint can landowners put more land into existing conservation programs and set aside less productive lands for prairies and wetlands. ­

In this sense, the monarch is an icon for a modern agricultural system that is more productive, uses fewer resources and values native habitat to sustain biodiversity.

Our overall goal is the creation of a continuous patchwork of quality habitat – featuring milkweed and other nectar rich plants – across the entire range of the monarch’s annual migration from Canada to Mexico. Achieving this goal will not be easy and it will require an enormous amount of cooperation among farmers, ranchers, conservation groups, transportation officials, governments and city dwellers. Strengthening collaborations between the agriculture and conservation communities is critical for helping to ensure a resilient monarch migration for generations to come.

This is why we are also focused on helping create greater awareness of the need for monarch habitat within agriculture landscape to foster collaboration between agricultural and conservation communities. We share our knowledge and experience, and provide funding as a catalyst for on-the-ground monarch habitat improvement and expansion.

In order to make a real positive impact, it takes everyone pulling together with common objectives. Conservation groups have been working for years to increase milkweed habitat for monarchs. Federal agencies also have directed public funds to habitat restoration and to programs to improve biodiversity on public and private lands. But more efforts are needed. Monarch habitat must increase for the population to recover fully. I want to thank all the people who are working alongside us to make a difference for the monarchs.

We know the challenges; we are making a difference, but we must continually build our efforts together to increase the overall monarch population.

I’m confident we’ll succeed because the monarch is too special for us all not to succeed. And with our success, the monarch will become a symbol for how agriculture and the environment can nourish a growing world while preserving natural habitat and nature’s wonders.  Even my dad is growing milkweed and saving its seeds to replant.  If he can change, there’s hope for us all!