Letters to the Editor

Letter: Don’t blame ethanol

April 7, 2014


To the editor:

Kansas University biologist Chip Taylor has brought ethanol to the top of his list of enemies to monarch butterflies in an article published on March 31. Over the years, Taylor has blamed global warming, drought and improved weed control for declining monarch populations. Now, he claims ethanol production is forcing wild prairie into crop production, destroying butterfly habitat. That is simply not true.

The ethanol industry continues to produce at consistent levels in 2014, yet last week’s USDA 2014 prospective plantings report showed a decrease of 3.7 million acres of corn to be planted in the U.S.

Many factors influence a farmer’s planting decisions, including market prices and weather.  In Kansas, we farm about 20 million acres of land producing mostly corn, wheat, soybeans and sorghum. Acreages shift between crops, but the amount of Kansas farmland remains consistent. 

Farmers should be recognized for the substantial amount of natural habitat on their farms. Instead of blaming ethanol and agriculture for loss of habitat for monarch butterflies, perhaps the loss of farmland and natural habitat to urban growth should be a greater concern.

Agriculture continues to produce more feed, food and energy from a stable or declining number of acres to meet the needs of a growing population. Ethanol has been blamed for causing many issues depending on the philosophy of a respective author – and the facts continue to disprove the basis of such attacks. That is true here as well.  I wonder where next year’s blame will be placed.


Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

I see this as a challenge to farmers, who can respond to it positively if they put their minds to it. No till agricultural practices were a response to the sobering erosion statistics that were presented to the farming community, and the new techniques developed greatly reduced erosion and improved water retention in fields, which in the long run has been a great boon to grain production.

So now the ag community is being presented a new set of statistics for it to come up with some solutions. Instead of trying to shoot the messenger, why not embrace the message, which is undeniable, and come up with some innovative solutions? There are some reasonable solutions available, why not take on a leadership role and become a hero instead of denying that the problem exists? And as far as climate change goes, ag is one of the most vulnerable industries out there, so this presents an opportunity to have a double impact: reduce carbon emissions, improve butterfly habitat and make a profit. Sounds tricky? Sure, but farmers have lived in "tricky" land as long as I can remember. I'm confident that they can come out the other end smelling like, well, maybe a milkweed, no? Their blossoms are incredibly sweet smelling in June!

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

Monarch butterfly conservationists criticize midwestern corn, soybean and wheat farmers for using herbicides to kill all weeds in their crop fields including milkweed. Yet when these same conservationists grow milkweed as a row crop in order to harvest and sell the milkweed seed, they aggressively use herbicides like this to keep their milkweed crop weed free: http://imagizer.imageshack.us/a/img27/7168/zbyc.jpg A great irony.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

It's easy, Paul: herbicides kill vast numbers of milkweeds in the corn and soybeans, while herbicides SAVE the milkweeds in your photo, which is the goal, right? Do you know your weeds? Your picture shows bindweed among the milkweed stand, which, if you've ever had a good infestation of this noxious weed, will take over a stand of pretty much anything. Could there be a cover crop of some kind used on the roadcut instead of the scorched earth herbicide practice? I would think so, but I don't know the particulars of this field--do you? They might have even been using the herbicide to prepare for planting a cover crop for all I know.

Seems to me you're just trying to be contrary. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Mike George 4 years, 1 month ago

This is just a somewhat uninformed guess, but the amount and type of land that is now put into CRP has also changed from 1985 to 2008 with the passage of five Farm Bills by congress. I would guess that simple blame for the use or perceived misuse of land since those legislative changes is not that easy to place. And understanding why in light of CRP requirements and payments any farmer would choose to put land into any particular kind of production is probably more complicated than most people would realize. As Mr. Lassman suggests, it may take some period of time for farmers to decide why and how much land they keep in uses that happen to be compatible with butterfly habitat. And I say that with all appreciation for habitat conservation and development, as our garden is a certified Monarch Watch waystation.

Andrew Stahmer 4 years, 1 month ago

If you take into account the environmental impact of the production of ethanol and transporting it, AND ethanol is less potent and efficient than gasoline--you must use more of it for the same results of an equal amount of gasoline...an argument could be made that it really is not 'better' for the environment.

So when you consider the inefficiency of ethanol, it's no good for your wallet...and then there is the insult to every taxpayer if we are still in anyway subsidizing this industry.

...and it's completely unacceptable if ethanol production is in any way effecting God's beautiful creatures who do us no harm; and only provide comfort and pleasure just by the very sight of them!

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

All that's needed to keep the monarch butterfly migration going is some milkweed in the hundreds of thousands of miles worth of farm road ditches that border the corn/soybean/wheat row crops in the upper Midwest. There's still a fair to good amount of milkweed in these farm road ditches and each summer I film monarchs laying eggs on these ditch milkweeds like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Mqrv...

So given the fact that monarchs have hundreds of thousands of miles worth of farm road ditch milkweeds still available to them it's just fanciful imagining to entertain any notion that the migration could suddenly collapse and go extinct just because farmers have gotten rid of the milkweeds that used to grow in their row crops. Especially considering that elsewhere in the world the monarch migrations are 200 - 10,000 times smaller than the midwestern USA migration and yet they persist decade after decade; e.g. the western USA migration is 200 times smaller.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

Milkweeds in ditches will no doubt play a very important role, but even they are being mowed down and sprayed. Downplaying the real challenges serves nobody; what is needed is careful monitoring, education of key stakeholders, who range from grain farmers, county roadside right of way maintenance departments, CRP landowners, biologists, various schools, environmental groups, etc. If all of these groups see each others as allies and work to overcome the various real challenges that threaten the monarch migration, it can be nurtured into the future and everyone can take credit. Without such open channels of communication or if folks dig in their heels in denial or cause unnecessary polarization, one of the bottlenecks in monarch population dynamics/habitat destruction may very well take them out of action. This is the time to build bridges of understanding, right?

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

There aren't any "real challenges that threaten the monarch migration" that "need to be overcome" because billions of milkweed plants still grow in the hundreds of thousands of miles worth of (mostly gravel) farm road ditches that border the row crops in the upper Midwest and collectively they support a population of tens of millions of monarch butterflies. Butterfly nectar flower still grow in those ditches too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckNud... Ditches are rarely sprayed, but they have always been mowed because without mowing they would end up choked out by invasive trees and shrubs.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

Not sure why you maintain your denial that there might be an issue here; I've given you research that indicates a significant drop in cropland and non-cropland monarch habitat that coincides with a drop in monarch populations, and you just say without any hard data not to worry. Here is yet another research based link that directly contradicts your seemingly cavalier attitude: http://www.monarchlab.org/mn2012/Admin/upload/80.pdf

Why not take the high road like I suggest instead, creating partnerships, monitoring networks, habitat strips, etc. that includes ALL key stakeholders, building bridges that allow everyone to win? Who knows; creating an acre of monarch habitat might make a farmer more money than an acre of corn or soybeans, or maybe instead of carpet spraying, get some kind of credit for turning off the sprayer when they go over a patch of milkweeds? You can then take more and more great videos and pictures to your heart's content and include examples of where farmers and roadside practices encourage the milkweeds, and spread the word of special events where milkweeds are sold/given away.

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

Ken, what the public needs to know and is not being told is that despite the fact that billions of milkweed plants had been eliminated from within Midwestern row crop fields by 2006-07, billions still remain in the farm road ditches and they support large buildups of monarchs in the late summer such as these I filmed in southern Minnesota in 2010: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4e3S... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJCnU... and 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jhKB... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iatYT... So we see the monarch migration has not hardly been endangered by the elimination of milkweed plants from within crop fields during the past decade. Monarch numbers have been reduced, but the butterfly continues to be a common sight in the Corn Belt states because billions of milkweed plants still remain in the farm road ditches. The monarch can be expected to continue to be common in the Midwest for decades to come as long as the amount of milkweed remaining in the farm road ditches is not drastically reduced.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

Once again, your reassurances come only with anecdotal evidence, and I'm sure if you had any actual data to present other than your anecdotal observations, you'd have presented it by now. The closest thing to a comprehensive milkweed census in the midwest and its relationship to monarch populations that I've been able to track down is the systematic research of Hartzler in 1999 and 2010, and also Oberhauser's research findings in 2012, which is summarized in the monarchlab link I provided to you above. Did you look at it? Did you find any "chinks" in the data that showed: -80% of monarchs come from agricultural fields; -milkweed density in ag fields dropped 80% or more from 2000 to 2010; -there has been a 65% drop in overwintering populations during that time; -there was an 81% drop in egg production during that same time;

A youtube video is a nice thing to do and share; however it in no way supports your position that there are enough milkweeds out there to support a healthy population of monarchs for decades to come. If you truly believe that (and I think you do), then you should be lobbying Greg Krissek from the Kansas Corn Growers Association, Monsanto and other GMO folks to help fund a carefully designed milkweed and monarch monitoring program that can work with midwest farmers, university entomologists, biologists, and commercial weed control companies to a) collect data of both populations on an ongoing basis; b) provide educational materials to roadside maintenance crews that discourages untimely mowing and spraying; c) encourage developing strategies to protect critical milkweed populations whereever needed.

Then, and only then, might you be able to point to data that supports your reassurances. There is no conspiracy to prevent the public from hearing the truth about milkweed and monarch populations; the data clearly shows that there is a problem and unless you can produce reliable data that shows otherwise, then you are just stating your personal opinion and nothing more.

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

Ken, I can predict in advance that I will be able to film gatherings of hundreds of monarchs later this coming summer between Aug. 25- Sept. 5, 2014 in the following upper Midwestern farm towns that are completely surrounded on all sides by vast GMO crop monocultures: Minnesota farm towns: Beaver Creek, Magnolia, Adrian, Fairmont, Gaylord, Winthrop, Gibbon, Fairfax, Stewart, Olivia, Danube. Iowa farm towns: Rockwell, Pomeroy, Knierim, Fort Dodge, (and many more). If I visit those same farm towns in early August I will be able to shoot video of newly emerged monarchs that developed on milkweeds that grow in the ditches next to the GMO crops: http://imagizer.imageshack.us/a/img13/93/yqaa.jpg http://imagizer.imageshack.us/a/img827/5643/6qde.jpg

Based on real world photo and video evidence, I believe the public will be able to make informed decisions as to whether or not the monarch migration has been endangered due to the fact that milkweed plants had been eliminated from within Midwestern row crop fields as of 2006-07. And appreciate the fact that while there are fewer monarchs than in pre-2006-07 days, there are still alot of them because fair to good amounts of milkweed still grow in the farm road ditches that border the GMO crop fields. The taxpayers need to know this in order to decide whether or not the pleas for money to "save the monarch" are actually necessary to prevent the extinction of the migration.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

Anecdotal, non-randomized sampling of around 10% of the Minnesota landscapes, while beautiful and entertaining, is not good monitoring protocol for gauging the overall health of the midwest monarch population and migration. If you are truly wanting to prove your stand that monarch populations and their food/habitats are secure, you will want to look at a more comprehensive, statistically valid monitoring protocol. The latter studies suggest reason for more concern; why not help build bridges with your videos and gain widespread support--and funding-- for ongoing monitoring programs, and, if the data indicates the need for it, best use practices for maintaining viable milkweed populations in agricultural fields, along roadsides, in peoples' yards, and in special plantings, along with an expanded program for growing and disseminating those milkweeds? You really can't lose if you support improving the monitoring program for both the milkweeds and the monarchs, and you will certainly garner a lot of good will in the process!

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

Ken, finding and filming alot of milkweed plants and monarch butterflies in 10% of Minnesota's or Iowa's most intensively farmed; i.e. worst case scenario landscapes tells the already financially strained taxpayers alot about whether or not there is a legitimate scientific need for them to bankroll "improved monitoring program for both the milkweeds and the monarchs".

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

Um, your photos you provide show two newly emerging monarchs NEXT to roundup ready soybean fields in August. This is neither randomized, representative nor proof of anything close to an accurate monitoring program. I suggest you review the techniques of Oberhauser and Hartzler in their respective papers to get an idea of what I'm talking about, and nothing less than a reliable monitoring program will result in either detecting a threat or confirming that no such threat exists. Taxpayers pay for monitoring the health of the food supply, invasive weeds and pests, erosion issues, clean water, diseases in humans and animals, our weather and climate, volcanoes, earthquakes, and all kinds of important things in our environment, and I hope you don't begrudge these things.

Furthermore, if you are so offended by the small amount of public funding it would take to sustain monarch monitoring (and I certainly am not), I suggest you help lead the effort to raise funds to create a privately funded initiative, once again requesting funds from all of the key stakeholders involved who don't want to see monarchs and their supporting habitat disappear over time.

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

Yes, the taxpayers pay for monitoring the things you listed because they have important known or potentially significant economic and /or public health impacts. But the abundance of milkweed plants and monarch butterflies is an aesthetic concern rather than one of economic or public health importance, hence monitoring it's not an activity the majority of taxpayers would likely support. Especially given the fact that milkweed plants and monarch butterflies are still a common sight along the farm roadsides that border the Midwest's herbicide tolerant corn / soybean / wheat crop monocultures.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

So you think that the majority of people think their tax dollars are wasted on funding the Smithsonian Museums? Or National Parks? Or Zoological/Botanical Parks? or state Natural Resource/Wildlife departments? You think that the funds already expended by both governmental and non-governmental agencies toward monitoring and protecting monarchs and their habitat are wasted funds? I think that you are definitely holding a minority view there, and while you are entitled to your opinion on this, it saddens me to think you do not see the general benefit to the public in a monarch monitoring program that is coupled with a habitat monitoring program.

And after looking at the available research efforts that I have pointed out to you that uses a far more robust and reliable census protocol than your anecdotal picture taking efforts, I'm assuming that you now agree that your personal photographic mission to document monarch emergence in a small fraction of the area in question falls fall short of providing a reliable method to either monitor the health of current monarch populations or gauge the impacts of various agricultural practices and mitigation efforts, correct? Given the fact that you abhor tax dollars being used to this end, are you now preparing to address the need through the pursuit of helping raise private monies? Have you given donations to any of private corporations that are listed amongst the 113 governmental/non/governmental/corporate sponsors of the North American Pollinator Protection campaign found here: http://pollinator.org/nappc/partners.htm?

One of the trademarks of a good monitoring program and solid research is to design a protocol that protects its findings from any agenda that the researcher/project may have. It seems that from your first post, you have exhibited a clear agenda and perhaps even a strong advocacy of a conclusion, around which you are gathering anecdotal "evidence." This is not nor has it ever been a reliable way to do scientific research and unbiased data collection, so I see no reason why any taxpayer should be paying attention to your conclusions any more than the next person's opinions, and unless you are willing to support a solid, reliable, basis from which to determine the true status of the monarch and its habitats, or to gauge the efficacy of conservation efforts, I see no more reason to pay attention to anything you say, except to thank you for the pretty pictures.

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

How has the public benefited from the past ~20 years worth of funding monitoring of monarch numbers and their habitats? Can you point to any dot org group websites or recent monarch articles in the popular press that inform the reader that milkweed plants and monarch butterflies are still a common sight along the farm roadsides that border the Midwest's herbicide tolerant corn / soybean / wheat crop monocultures? No, instead you find the reverse like this recent article: http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2014/mar... that leads the public to believe that since 2007 "the majority of monarch habitats were destroyed" due to the ethanol mandate. And further leads the public to believe that "In just 17 years, the total area occupied by monarch colonies has dropped from 20.97 acres to just .67 of an acre" without mentioning that in 1996 the monarch population was anomalously high and in 2013 anomalously low. So we see that far from keeping the public accurately informed about the continuing abundance of milkweed plants and monarch butterflies in the upper Midwest, the monitoring studies have done the reverse; i.e. leading the public to think the migration is imminently threatened with collapse and extinction. A couple brief video examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZXGR... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_Y9C...

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

That's simple,Paul. We wouldn't be in a position to have a population of monarchs to monitor if there hadn't developed the current monitoring network. If the 113 agencies spanning 3 countries hadn't identified critical habitat and overwintering areas, spent considerable political capital and developed financial resources to protect key areas, those habitats would have long disappeared and the migrations would be history by now.

Yes, if you know your milkweeds, you can still find them along roadsides that are not sprayed. Does this fact make monarchs secure? The only research that I've seen shows that despite this fact, a very significant drop in milkweed populations has occurred and along with it, a concurrent drop in monarch egg/larval counts. And once again, these significant drops are occurring primarily in the GMO roundup ready growing areas. Now YOU show me some research and reliable monitoring efforts that shows that this is all just hunky dory and that the monarchs will be just fine. You can't.

It seems clear to me that you have no real interest in helping solidify monarch and monarch monitoring programs, something that is critical in these monarch bottleneck years. If we are going to have any chance to get through that bottleneck, we will need this in place, and since you are not interested in either a private, public or combination of the two-funded network, I really have no interest in discussing this with you any more, despite your nice videos and photos. Maybe someday you will wake up and realize that the chip on your shoulder opinion does nobody any favor and that your efforts could instead make a difference in motivating and inspiring others to help the monarch survive into the future, and will change your attitude. I can only hope.

Paul Cherubini 4 years, 1 month ago

Far from having exacting overwintering habitat requirements, monarchs overwinter successfully in extremely urbanized settings such as these three examples from big cities in California: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwJon... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZALw8... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxQ9M... And far from 2014 being a "critical bottleneck year" Chip Taylor wrote this on April 9 on his dplex mailing list: "The first sightings data over the last observation period posted by Journey North shows modest to good numbers of monarchs in TX, with a few in OK." As of today, April 13, the sighting map is loaded with records: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/maps/monarch_spring2014.html

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

I'm not sure if you really misunderstand what I'm referring to when I say that the species is in a bottleneck or whether you are just throwing out trolling hooks to keep engaging in contrarian behavior. Maybe you yourself don't know, since you refuse to answer any of my questions about your intentions. Therefore, I'll leave your comments alone, saying that you should start educating yourself by perhaps starting with looking up "extinction threshold" on Wikipedia. Since you have never answered why you don't use your talents toward helping expand and maintain the monarch/monarch habitat monitoring network, or even acknowledged that such a network is necessary to even prove your opinion that all is hunky dory for the monarchs, I really have no interest in your cherry picking observations.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

Hey, at least 4 posts from Paul and myself have mysteriously disappeared this afternoon. We were having a decent dialogue when --poof! --the last few days of comments disappeared! I know I didn't delete anything, and if Paul did, I don't think that should have affected what I posted. What's up??

Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

two days later, they have returned. Thanks, JW

Thomas Bryce Jr. 4 years, 1 month ago

Ken, if you notice, the Posts are now newest at the Top and I had to post this because my reply Does not show here but it does show in My Responses file. I called the LJW desk . They are looking into it. It changed sometime this afternoon. and yes a bunch of posts are gone.

Thomas Bryce Jr. 4 years, 1 month ago

I looked at multiple pages with substantial comments and it looks like all of the Replies to original posts are gone as well as having the Reversed Chronological Format.

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