The Farmland Decline of Monarch Butterflies and Bees: What Do Our Food Choices Have to Do With It?
By Gary Paul Nabhan
On your way to being seated at Oyamel in Washington D.C., you pass stunning mobiles of orange and black monarchs, the now-imperiled butterfly that winters in the sacred oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico. But once you look at the menu, you read that Chef Jose Andrés is donating one dollar for each Taco de Puerco Estilo Apatzingan to the preservation of monarch butterflies in their trinational corridor across North America. The fact that a famous molecular gastronomist is using his restaurant to help save butterflies may seem like a non sequitur for some of his customers, but it is meant to remind all of us to an essential link: The health of the world’s pollinator populations has direct connections to the health of our food system, and to the flavor and nutritional value of foods themselves.
Whether or not all American eaters have awakened to this cold hard fact, fewer honey bees, bumblebees and monarch butterflies thrive in American farmscapes today than at any moment during our lifetimes. Many readers were indeed jarred by a message on last August’s Time magazine cover which sounded like a doomsday pronouncement: we are headed for “a world without honey bees”. At the same time, few of those readers likely knew that several kinds of bumblebees had suffered up to 96 percent declines in abundance due to diseases and pests jumping from honey bees over the last two decades. And due to a combination of natural and manmade factors, monarch butterfly numbers in the Midwest have dropped 88 percent from 1999 to 2012, triggered by a 64 percent loss of milkweeds from farmscapes in that region.
The scarcity of so many different kinds of pollinators is now worrying both farmers and agricultural ecologists enough that they have begun to mobilize collaborative efforts to avert what some call “food chain collapse.” By that, they mean that an entire cascade of consequences could take place if more and more of our forage, fruit and vegetable crops are under-pollinated.
According to a survey of a typical Whole Foods produce section, at least 237 of the 453 fruit and vegetable varieties present there require pollination by insects. They are likely to decline in quantity and quality if bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects continue to decline in number and in health. The food choices accessible to poor, food-insecure families in particular would be further limited by the rising cost of these produce items.
And yet, how we decide who we choose to purchase our food from can help avert this so-called crisis by providing incentives for pollinator recovery on our farm lands. For a moment, set aside the simple dichotomies of organic versus conventional, big versus small, and focus on a slightly different question when trying to determine who to gain your food from. Is your buying power tangibly supporting those who are working to sustain on-farm habitat for native plants, pollinators, and game?
As documented in surveys by the USDA, the Farm Bureau and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, at least half of all American farmers are engaged to some degree in conserving on-farm habitat for wildlife, and they need to be honored for doing so. More specifically, both the Partners for Sustainable Pollination and the Xerces Society certify farms which document their own pollinator-friendly practices, reducing untargeted use of pesticides and herbicides while restoring nectar resources and nesting sites in habitats adjacent to fields or orchards. Still, since most pollinator-friendly farmers do not label their produce as such, few consumers understand how their own social and economic encouragement can help truly support these efforts, for there are tremendous pressures on farmers to do otherwise.
For example, due to perverse incentives to take land out of the USDA’s conservation reserve program and to use that land to produce ethanol from field crops, we have lost 24 million acres of habitat for milkweeds, bee forages and other native wildflowers since 2007. According to Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, another half million acres of on-farm habitat for monarchs and bees is being annually lost in farm country due to urban and suburban development. Until we give farmers more tangible economic incentives to keep wildlife habitat a significant part of American farmscapes, it is likely that we will increasingly suffer pollinator declines.
The burden of investing in on-farm conservation of adequate habitat should not solely be placed on the shoulders of farmers themselves. As agroecologist Laura Jackson of the Tallgrass Prairie Conservation Center has suggested, everyone in the food supply chain—from tractor manufacturers and herbicide producers to consumers—must now step up to the plate to protect America’s bees and butterflies, and restore their foraging and breeding habitats.
That’s why the alliance of farmers, educators, religious leaders and wildlife conservationists which I co-facilitate—www.makewayformonarchs.org—is calling for a Day of Action and Contemplation for imperiled pollinators on April fourteenth. We hope that faith-based groups, Slow Food chapters, Chefs Collaborative restaurants and “edible communities” will commit to actions such as helping local farmers with plantings of milkweeds and other pollinator forages on that day. We see this day as a way of honoring the pioneering pollinator conservationist Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, on the fiftieth anniversary of her death. Prayer vigils for monarchs and other pollinators will also be taking place from Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill in San Francisco, to Rachel Carson’s grave in Rockville, Maryland
We hope that public statements of tangible commitments to bee and butterfly habitat recovery will continue through National Pollinator Week, which takes place around Summer Solstice this year. Please post any pollinator-friendly activity you and your community commit to on makewayformonarch’s Facebook page, so that we can spread the news of the positive, solutions-based efforts happening all across the continent.
Each era of American eaters can and should be judged by the extent to which they ensure the survival, nourishment and health of species in addition to our own. Your food choices can indirectly help or harm our imperiled pollinators, so join us in our collaborations with many diverse stakeholders to recover the well-being and abundance of pollinators in American foodscapes.
Gary Paul Nabhan is an orchard keeper and co-facilitator of www.makewayformonarchs.org, a milkweed-butterfly recovery alliance. Along with bee ecologist Steve Buchmann, his co-author for The Forgotten Pollinators, he was among the first to sound the alarm about bee and butterfly declines in the mid-90’s. His latest book is Cumin, Camels and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey, has just come out from the University of California Press.