Goulson Lab

Monarch butterflies; A&E conservation not the way forwards?

Monarch butterflies are one of the most beautiful and remarkable of insects. They migrate annually from cool forests in the mountains of Mexico, where they hibernate in vast numbers, northwards to all of the USA and into southern Canada, where they breed on milkweed plants. Somehow their descendants, reared in North America, know exactly where to return in the autumn. Once a common sight, sadly monarch numbers have plummeted in recent years. The cause isn’t known for sure – it may be a lack of habitat, particularly a shortage of milkweeds, which are widely considered to be noxious weeds and targeted with herbicides. It may be insecticides; some, such as neonicotinoids, disrupt the ability of insects to navigate at unimaginably small doses.  Or it may be a combination of the many stresses that the modern world throws at these marvellous creatures.

The news has recently highlighted conservation campaigns in North America which are encouraging people to grow milkweeds in their gardens, and which are trying to sow wildflower mixes including milkweeds along road verges. This is of course laudable, certainly better than doing nothing, and it just may work; conservation efforts focussed on specific, charismatic (usually large and beautiful or cute) creatures do sometimes succeed. But something about this makes me deeply uneasy. It seems to me that this is a bit like applying a sticking plaster to someone who has just been run over by a lorry. There are perhaps 5 million species in the world, maybe more. The current rate of extinction is thought to be roughly 1,000 times the natural rate, with perhaps ten species going extinct every day. Most have never even been named, let alone received a concerted conservation campaign. We cannot possibly save them one species at a time.  

So what is the answer? There is no simple one. Somehow, we need to set aside more land for wildlife. We need to find ways to farm that also support biodiversity – at present, most methods of farming across the globe are disastrous for wildlife. But how do we do that and feed the ever growing human population? Most governments are obsessed with economic growth, government-funded agricultural research mostly focusses on intensifying farming and increasing yield, and most agriculture is owned and run by vast industrial enterprises focussed on short-term profit. While we continue down this route, global biodiversity is doomed to rapid erosion, until only the toughest, most adaptable creatures persist. Of course in the long term, this will reduce the ability of the planet to support us, and our descendants will be doomed to a miserable existence. Already soils covering an area the size of India have been badly degraded through intensive farming, and climate change threatens to make further vast areas uninhabitable.    

There is an alternative. For a start, if we all ate less meat and reduced the spectacular levels of food wastage (at all stages of the chain from the farm to the domestic fridge) we would need to grow an awful lot less food, and that could go a long way to solving the problem. More broadly, we need to somehow stop the endless drive for ‘growth’, given the obvious point that we live on a planet of fixed size with finite resources.

The Earth is roughly 1,000 billion miles from the nearest planet that might possibly support life. It is quite probable that we will never be able to get there, and that we may never be visited by extra-terrestrial life, if it exists. So shouldn’t we look after the only planet we have, and the unique creatures that live here with us? Helping monarchs is all very well, but band-aid measures for a few unusually pretty animals are not going to save the planet.      

PS Anyone who knows me may well feel the need to point out a certain hypocrisy; I’ve been involved in several conservation campaigns focussed on single species, such as the short-haired bumblebee reintroduction in SE England. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do these things – sometimes it is all that we can do, as individuals. Such programmes can do widespread good; the short-haired bumblebee project has resulted in lots of new flower-rich glasslands, great habitat for many species. Perhaps the monarch campaign can do the same. But a broader, holistic approach to managing the planet is needed if we are to make any significant dent in the collapse of global biodiversity.