Monsanto, Blamed for Killing Monarchs, Donates Millions to S

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.

Related Report: Genetically Engineered Crops Are Driving the Monarch Butterfly to Extinction

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.

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