Much like the bee, our beautiful and beloved friend the monarch butterfly has been in steady decline over the last decade. Numerous studies have attributed the drop to a variety of causes, but new research released by the University of Minnesota and Iowa State University points to the increasing presence of Monsanto’s GMO corn and soybean crops across the United States as the culprit.

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Orange butterfly on yellow photo from Shutterstock

Since 1999, GMO crops have become mainstream — touted for their herbicide-resistant qualities and particularly their ability to withstand weed-killing Roundup. Unfortunately, while the GMO crops have thrived in the face of brute force, the monarchs’ preferred nesting and feeding plant, the milkweed, has not. Between 1999 and 2010, the same period GMO crops became the norm for farmers, the number of monarch eggs declined by an estimated 81 percent across the Midwest. Researchers attribute the change to the virtual disappearance of milkweed from hundreds of millions of acres of farms and fields.

“It is one of the clearest examples yet of unintended consequences from the widespread use of genetically modified seeds,” said John Pleasants, a monarch researcher from Iowa State in Ames, Iowa. “When we put something out there, we don’t know always what the consequences are.”

Researchers have suggested a remedy could be for farmers to grow milkweed in pastures away from their corn, soybean, and other crops. This would provide a safe place for butterflies to lay their eggs, as well as keep the pesky weeds out of the farmers’ crops. But for whatever reason, monarchs are more attracted to milkweed plants in corn and soybean fields and use those milkweeds more heavily than milkweed outside farm fields. The butterflies lay up to nearly four times as many eggs on farm field plants as on those in pastures or on roadsides, the researchers have found. Under these findings the pressure to focus on conservation is a dire one –especially as GMO crops don’t appear to be going anywhere soon.

“The scale of the loss of habitat is so big that unless we compensate for it in some way, the population will decline to the point where it will disappear,” said Chip Taylor, an insect ecologist at the University of Kansas and the director of research at Monarch Watch, a conservation group.

Researchers of the new study are hoping that with their findings they will be able to make the case for increasing monarch habitats along roads in pastures, gardens and on conservation lands. They hope that the issue will be considered a national priority because it is clear that the milkweed will never come back to farm fields.

Via Star Tribune

Lead Image: Monarch resting on a leaf courtesy of Shutterstock