Farm Press Blog

Good weed control causing monarch declines?


Danged if you do a good job of weed control and danged if you don't.

For farmers these days, it’s danged if you do, and danged if you don’t.

If you don’t pay proper attention to weeds and let a patch of them get a foothold in your crop, you lose yield, money and perhaps gain a more costly weed control program the following year.

Do too good a job and the environmentalists come out of the woodwork claiming your clean fields are killing butterflies. Then they suggest solutions that add more cost to farming, or use the opportunity to express their philosophical opposition to genetically-engineered crops.

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The latest comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which recently petitioned EPA to “save the monarch butterfly.” They said in a news release, “Skyrocketing use of the weed-killer glyphosate, first marketed as Roundup, is devastating monarch butterfly populations, and new safeguards should be put in place immediately to save the iconic species from further decline.”

Of course, we all know that glyphosate is not actually killing monarch butterflies – it’s a herbicide, not an insecticide – but something is responsible for taking out the monarch’s primary habitat in the Midwest United States, common milkweed. As this habitat decreases, so have monarch populations.

While the monarch butterfly is not considered an endangered species, what is at stake is the butterfly’s annual migration from the United States to Mexico.

First, let’s be clear. I don’t have anything against monarch butterflies. They are beautiful creatures that don’t bite, sting, suck blood, spread disease or shed hair. Nothing would be more pleasing than to see interested parties, including U.S. agriculture, figure out a way to increase their numbers.

But let’s do it in a responsible manner. Study and define the problem based on peer-reviewed studies and dialogue, and develop solutions that don’t involve hiring more government employees or making farming less profitable.

It’s really not all that surprising that the NRDC did none of this, preferring its typical cocoon of reactionary thinking. Among its recommendations to EPA is that farmers “establish herbicide-free safety zones in or around their fields, and creation of other milkweed-friendly habitat.”

Asking farmers to allow milkweed to infest field crops after investing so much in herbicide-resistant technology is not the direction that U.S. agriculture should be asked to take.

We have to understand the monarch’s habitat, migration pathways, the impact of non-agricultural weed control along roadsides, the effect of corn prices on corn acreage and CRP, logging in Mexico, urban sprawl and climate change. And one question I would really like to ask a Midwest farmer – was milkweed control so bad prior to Roundup Ready technology that butterflies flew in crop fields in gleeful abundance?

In any event, butterflies deserve better than environmentalists pushing an agenda.



Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Mar 11, 2014

There has been an intensification of weed control practices on farmland as well as along roadsides, railway lines, livestock pastures and similar places the past 20 years that has decreased the abundance of milkweed plants and monarch butterflies. The environmental activists, however, have contradictory values and goals; e.g. they want farmers to better control weeds along the field margins to conserve water that's needed for the Delta smelt fish and to help prevent E coli contamination of crops, but then they also want farmers to plant milkweed and wildflowers along the field margins. The activists also want to grow and sell milkweed plants to the public, but when you look at the methods they farm the milkweed you see they grow it as a row crop and aggressively spray the weeds and wildflowers both within their milkweed crop fields as well as the field margins like this:

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