Death of a Butterfly

by Mark Ritchie
Summer 2001

One early morning last spring, my half-asleep eyes caught the opening lines of a letter in my local newspaper.

"I am a farmer. I knew that since I was 5. I grow crops. The land I farm also grows butterflies, birds, earthworms and wildflowers, or at least I think it is supposed to. Right now I am having trouble figuring out what kind of farmer I am or should be. This question is not just for me but for you. I am concerned that there is no room for bluebirds and butterflies in big, precision, genetically-modified agriculture."

The letter, from a family farmer named Michael Klingelhutz, went on to describe one of the many destructive aspects of industrial biotechnological agriculture: the destruction of vital habitat for wildlife.

He wrote about the importance of milkweed as the sole habitat for monarch butterfly caterpillars and about how, before the advent of new biotech soybean and corn crops, he had "raised a good crop of monarchs" as part of his farming. But in the late 1990s, "Roundup Ready genetically engineered soybeans became widely available. Roundup herbicide kills everything green except the soybeans with the genetic alteration."

The farmer eventually realized that more than just his milkweeds had disappeared - so had the monarchs.
"My milkweeds are gone. My neighbor's milkweeds are gone. Farmers using Roundup Ready genetics in soybeans, cotton, corn and sugar beets are eradicating milkweed from their fields nationwide, forcing the monarch butterflies to lay their eggs on milkweed in field borders and ditches."

The purpose of most biotechnology in crop farming is to kill all plants and insects except the single, genetically-engineered crop the biotechnology is designed to protect. The two major biotech crops in use today, accounting for 90 percent of genetically engineered acres in the United States, are Roundup Ready crops (like soybeans), mentioned in farmer Klingelhutz's letter, and Bt crops, short for Bacillus thuringiensis, like Bt corn.

Monsanto Corporation's Roundup Ready crops have been manipulated to contain a special gene that makes them immune to damage from very high doses of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Roundup kills essentially every green thing in sight except crops injected with the special gene.

Monsanto advertises that its products will maximize crop yield and reduce costs, yet monarchs and the rest of nature suffer a two-fisted biotech assault: First, the destruction of natural habitat by Monsanto's plant killers. Second, poisoning from the herbicides that are being spread over millions of acres of land and running off into our waterways and estuaries.

In an article in Science magazine, British researchers predicted a 90 percent decline in plant seed populations, which would lead to a significant drop in the skylark population (and most likely other bird species as well), if Roundup Ready sugar beets are widely adopted in England. The near total destruction of all plants except sugar beets would eliminate the major sources of seeds that are the chief nutrition source for these beautiful birds.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering are an assault on the wild unlike any other. Genetic engineering is the irreversible alteration of nature at the genetic level. When companies alter the genetic makeup of a plant or animal they touch off a chain reaction - setting loose a form of genetic pollution that will not die out over time like nuclear pollution or be limited to a geographic location like toxins. Genetic pollution is forever.

As Michael Klingelhutz pointed out in his letter, it really does matter how we produce our food and fiber. We can grow "butterflies, birds, earthworms and wildflowers" along with our crops, or we can kill them off. We can move at breakneck speed toward a full embrace of the industrial agricultural model or we can step back, reflect on what we've done, and make a different choice. If consumers are asking the right questions about these issues and buying with a conscience, there is a chance that we can move from a monocultural view of farming to what many are calling multifunctional agriculture, recognizing the many things that farming can and should produce - like milkweeds and monarchs - along with food, fiber and fuel.

About the Author

Mark Ritchie is president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He chairs the national Organic Growers and Buyers Association and serves on the board of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. Michael Klingelhutz is a farmer in Waconia, Minnesota.