The numbers are in from Mexico, and they ain’t pretty. Every fall, monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles from the Great Plains to their winter grounds in central Mexico, where they're scrupulously counted by the World Wildlife Fund. In 1996, the overwintering monarchs blanketed 45 acres of forest. This year, they cover only about 1.6 acres, and the population – already at its lowest ever recorded – has dropped by half again since just last year. Scientists fear that one of North America’s greatest migrations is in its death throes.
The stats were announced Jan. 29 by the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund. Blame has been sure and swift. It’s Monsanto’s fault, it’s climate change, it’s shrinking winter habitat. Yet while those are indeed factors, the biggest – and perhaps the easiest to change, relatively speaking – are U.S. government policies like the farm bill signed into law by President Obama last Friday.
Not that you can call anything about the farm bill “easy.” The $956 billion, 949-page behemoth took three years to craft and covers a veritable Swiss army knife of programs, including agriculture, conservation, rural development, energy, forestry and food stamps. That it passed Congress at all is impressive; that it did so with the support of conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Ducks Unlimited is even more so. Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs for the National Wildlife Federation, called the bill “worth the wait.” One provision in particular discourages farmers from plowing up virgin grasslands in Montana, the Dakotas and three other states, with the hope that limiting crop insurance on such fields will discourage sodbusting, thereby preserving native prairie and improving the chances of monarchs. Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which are rapidly disappearing under heavy machinery and herbicides.
Yet though the farm bill offers some protection for grasslands, it also maintains incentives for farmers to plant ever more corn and soybeans – a policy that’s led to a rate of grassland destruction on the northern plains greater than that of Amazonian deforestation. The new bill cuts back on the direct subsidies of the past and replaces them with crop insurance and price guarantees, but critics counter that the end result is essentially the same.
Plus, the bill cuts $6 billion in conservation programs, and the maximum number of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will be reduced by 8 million. The CRP allows farmers to take environmentally sensitive fields out of production for 10 or 15 years in exchange for payment, but participation is voluntary, and with continued incentives to plant more crops, hundreds of thousands of acres of milkweed-rich CRP land have been plowed into production in recent years.
Another reason pollinators like the monarch are losing habitat is the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates that a rising percentage of domestic gasoline be made from biofuels such as corn-based ethanol. Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas insect ecologist who founded an outreach program called MonarchWatch, points out that “while the acreage (of corn and soy production) increased by 9.5 million acres from 1996 to 2006, the acreage increased by 20 million over the last 7 years. This increase is largely due to the ethanol mandate.”
Corn growers say the ethanol subsidies help keep crop prices steady and farms in business, but senators like Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., argue that they raise food costs and encourage sodbusting. Feinstein and Coburn co-authored a bill in December to eliminate the mandate, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has separately proposed to cut ethanol requirements by 16 percent. So far, however, both efforts have stalled, and ethanol and biofuel subsidies remain strong in the 2014 farm bill.
Still, plowing up prairie doesn't necessarily condemn monarchs to death. Corn and other crops can be grown alongside milkweed, and were for many years before herbicide-resistant GMO strains like Monsanto's Roundup Ready were introduced. Again, federal policies come into play: the European Union regulates GMO crops much more strictly than the U.S. government, and the U.S. could easily keep tapping the brakes on the spread of GMOs, as it did last year, when it delayed the release of two engineered crops meant to withstand chemicals even more toxic than Roundup.
While federal policies have had – and continue to have – an enormous impact on butterflies, the grueling passage of the Farm Bill and the swiftly dropping monarch numbers leave little hope that the feds can move quickly enough to enact change. With most monarch habitat privately owned and spread across vast areas, the impetus may end up falling to landowners, or even states, which can make a difference simply by not mowing roadsides, says Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership advocacy group.
Davies Adams isn’t giving up. One provision dropped from the farm bill in the 11th hour would have mandated yearly pollinator counts and forced federal agencies to cooperate in addressing their decline. Davies Adams is traveling to Washington, D.C. next week to shop around for a new home for the policies.
“We’re going to work really hard to make them happen,” she says. “It doesn’t have to happen in the farm bill. The farm bill is one vehicle. If you don’t get ‘em in (there), you simply find another way.”
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.