Monarch Butterflies vs The Corporate Machine

butterflyguyWhere does The New York Times get its reputation for hard hitting investigative journalism? They must be coasting on James Risen’s reputation because they look like nose-in-the-sand pushovers when it comes to environmental issues.

Earlier this year I looked at their approach to bee reporting and found more spin than substance. I wondered if that was an accident of fate so I decided to do another test case. This time I looked at how they reported the issues surrounding the failing monarch butterfly migration.

Recommendations About How to Help Monarch Butterflies

Unless you’ve been hiding away on the space shuttle this year you probably know that the monarch butterfly migration east of the Rocky Mountains is in danger of collapse.

Over the course of 2014, five stories were published by The New York Times about monarch butterflies. Most off the content involved information about the migration and butterflies in general but two of the reports offered brief recommendations about what we can do to help.

But before they told us what we could do they made sure to set a limit. On February 14, they printed the following statement which turned out to be the key phrase for the whole year’s reporting. Above all else

We can’t ask farmers to change their habits.”

Yet, isn’t that exactly what people did when faced with ecological catastrophe in the 1930s? Rather than pretending the dust bowl didn’t happen, people learned from the experience and stopped using damaging farming techniques. I have to wonder why change was possible then but unthinkable now.

But let’s go back to the action plan. As ‘the newspaper of record’ with vast resources and access to the wisest experts in the land The New York Times gave the public this advice:

In February: Let’s plant milkweed on roadsides and between fields. Maybe we could offer subsidies for farmers to set aside land that is free of herbicides.

By November the advice became: Gardeners should replace tropical milkweeds with native varieties. Make sure to cut them back in the fall. Oh, and we ought to do more experimental work.

Really?

Do you know how much tropical milkweed is grown in this country? I don’t. But I can give a rough estimate of how much land is used for GMO crops. The USDA reported that in 2012:

Corn fields took up 87.4 million acres
Soy fields used 76.1 million acres
Cotton fields used 9.4 million acres.

The total rounds up to 173 million acres of land. Of that land the majority was planted with Bt and Roundup Ready seed. Looking through the window at the lone tropical milkweed plant waving back at me from my backyard I am honestly astonished that anyone could think it poses any threat at all in comparison to all those millions of acres of poisoned land.

It really is a bit like living during a plague year in old London. All around us is a mass die off resulting from infected flea bites. Meanwhile some guy is making a profit from selling the death blankets to survivors. In the middle of all this drama someone else comes along hoping to start a debate in the town square about the relative merits of cotton vs linen bandages for buboes. I know which problem deserves my attention.

The New York Times disagrees with me I guess. They seem to think that plague sellers like Monsanto and Syngenta are the ones who need protection. I can tell because of the way they have portioned out their story real estate. And because they refused to investigate those who are accountable.

Unequal Story Space Regarding the Causes of the Problem

To be fair The New York Times did specifically mention on two occasions that habitat loss is the prime threat to monarch butterflies. But their phrasing of the problem is a bit disingenuous and a kind of deflection. The cause of all that shrinking habitat is known. Whenever I see ‘habitat loss’ in print I prefer to replace the phrase with ‘herbicide use.’

Knowing that they are aware of the main cause for the problem it is jarring to see which of the problem causes receives the most discussion space. (Please refer to the chart below).

butterfly causes piechart

The problem of herbicide use (orange) is dwarfed by an issue that at this time is only speculative — that gardeners growing tropical milkweed (blue) might cause harm to monarch butterflies. The two other causes are largely tangential issues since they have been largely solved (deforestation in Mexico) or impossible to control (severe weather). It is noteworthy that no mention is even given to climate change which has been named as a contributing cause by other publications.

These days people spend a lot of time reading stuff on the internet. Actually, they spend a lot of time looking at pictures and skimming text. Small facts buried in a wall of text don’t stand much chance of being remembered or even seen. As with the stories written about bees much of the stuff written about monarch butterflies this year seems designed to divert our attention from actually addressing let alone solving the problem.

News for the One Percent

The New York Times Public Editor recently answered a complaint that the paper is out of touch with most people’s realities and that its stories mainly address the needs of the one percent.

I have to agree with that complaint. If my two little case studies are indeed typical then The New York Times has a policy or culture that looks strongly pro-corporate and anti-environment. Maybe they really do think that the potential loss of the butterfly migration is trivial: merely the cost of doing agribusiness.

I do not think that loss is trivial. I think it is a canary. Who knows what is happening to less glamorous insect populations. And insects are Mother Nature’s favourite animals; if they go the whole life system could collapse.

I heard The New York Times may reinstate the Environment desk. If they do, I doubt it will make much of a difference to their anti-environment reporting agenda.

Though it is a bit early for end of the year predictions I am going to make one anyway. I think that new environment team will primarily look at climate change and mostly continue to ignore the other pressing issues. Even within the issue of climate change I think their focus will likely be on mitigation rather than actually correcting the problem. This means lots of green-washing articles (buying our way out of the problem) and plenty of profiles of people making money while supposedly ‘helping’ us fight carbon pollution. I seriously doubt they will provide us with good information to drive policy making.

In other words, reading the New York Times will remain pretty much a waste of time if you care at all about our environment.

***

How I made the Pie Chart

I used the search function at The New York Times website to identify the stories published about monarch butterflies and limited the time frame to the current year. I broke those stories into sentences (sometimes phrases where appropriate) and used Open Office’s word count to find out how much space was allotted. The word totals were sorted into various categories:

  • monarch butterflies in general and the migration
  • problem causes (which got sorted into the pie chart categories)
  • recommendations
  • other (mostly a profile about a scientist)
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33 thoughts on “Monarch Butterflies vs The Corporate Machine

  1. In the UK we have similar problems with our own native butterflies in danger of extinction because of modern farming methods. Organisations have been set up to help and the great news is that butterfly populations can recover quickly as soon as the right habitat and food becomes available. http://butterfly-conservation.org/ Educating children about wildlife is key and there is a big swing towards growing bee and butterfly friendly plants in private gardens too. I think that gardeners have a massive role to play in protecting wildlife. Individually we can help a few creatures and if a village or neighbourhood joins together then results are even better. Growing organically is the way to go!

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    1. The earth has a surprising resiliency if we are at all willing to let it repair itself. Hurrah for caring gardeners. Thank you for the link. I am looking forward to learning more. btw: your garden and blog are absolutely beautiful.

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      1. Yes Hurrah for gardeners indeed! Thanks for your lovely comment Debra. I’m looking forward to following your blog to find out what’s happening in your part of the world.

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  2. PBS had a story last year about tigers in India – they were trying to migrate during the seasons and most were getting killed on roadways/railways or running into trouble because they were just running too frequently into humans. Someone finally figured out that if they just created north/south nature areas that were connected (no matter by how thin a line) that they had many less problems with the tigers. That is really what needs to happen within the US as well – I wonder how some people would feel about paying farmers to set aside some of their fields (or even just the ends of fields) to have milkweeds and native grasses instead – I guess it would most likely depend on how much that would cost.

    Also, a big issue with Monsanto is that they will sue any farmer that ends up with GM seed – and since Monsanto hasn’t figured out how to turn their seed sterile, it means that they just go around suing farmers that are next to farmers who use known GM seed because there’s no way to stop the interbreeding of GM and regular/organic if they’re less than a mile apart. There was a very sad story a few years ago about an elderly farmer in Illinois who was sued by Monsanto for stealing their seed when he did no such thing of the sort – it just happened that his corn had been fertilized by the Monsanto corn across the street and he had saved some seed from his crops for the next season.

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    1. No question green corridors are a great thing. And kind of magical how they can work sometimes to help the earth heal.

      What you describe also happened to a farmer in Canada. Monsanto sued him and he lost in court. Luckily he only had to pay a token amount because the court realized the situation was beyond his control. Monsanto used his situation to strike fear into the farming community. I think Mosanto’s power has peaked though. And as for subsidies: gmo farmers are getting them now. Why not reverse the situation so that organic farmers are favoured instead?

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  3. Where you live, are there nature preserves? This seems to me to be the most direct way to address a multitude of issues for all the imperiled creatures and plants. And the preserve can’t just sit there. People have to learn about the ecosystem where they live and become active in keeping it healthy.
    Farmers get the squeeze from the USDA and Monsanto. Customers can help them out by buying organic, locally grown food. To be honest, I never bother with newspapers.

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    1. Nature preserves are everywhere. There is a small one right in my neighbourhood. But most are too small and too disconnected to really address the problem of sustaining diverse wildlife populations. In my county (Travis) only 1% of the land isn’t dominated by farms, ranches, industry or cities. I doubt we are an outlier; I suspect the numbers are similar throughout the US.

      I think most people have abandoned newspapers.

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        1. Creating a green corridor would be a tough thing to do in the case of the monarch migration which stretches from Mexico to southern Canada. Traditionally monarchs flew the entire length of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. If you look at a map of North America the migration route nearly perfectly overlays the area where people now grow corn, soy and cotton. A narrow wild flower highway might work but I think a cheaper solution is for farmers to tolerate some diversity (weeds & wild flowers) on those fields. Those commodities are already in overproduction mode anyway. This year like most, farmers will have to be subsidized by the federal government because the cost of production is greater than the return. A surplus is also predicted for next year. Clearly some of that space can be shared with monarch butterflies and all the other threatened wild creatures without causing much of a problem. Limiting production could in fact save us all a lot of money and help farmers get a decent return for their work. A win for people and wildlife.

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  4. Another great thought-provoking post. I love the no- nonsense, scientific way you make your analysis. Fantastic. I agree with every word.
    I shall be interested to see your test study on The Guardian. It is the only newspaper that we have any faith in at all.

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  5. My take on the farmers not wanting to change is this: After buying into doing business with Monsanto & friends, the cost of going back to healthy practices is probably beyond what they are able to withstand. Given that each year they have to purchase new seed form Monsanto to continue to earn a living, the soil has been poisoned, and what other than Monsanto seeds can be grown. The farmers are just as much in a difficult position as the rest of us.

    I can’t understand why the powers that be don”t seem to want to change this situation. Is it the mantality that, “after I’m gone, what do I care?” That is shallow, and villionis! How can you not care about the generations that come after us? This is clearly a dumbed down mentality, & lack of integrity!

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    1. I recently read a report that showed that farmers do want to opt out because organic farming is now more profitable than government subsidized conventional farming. They only thing holding them back this year was a seed shortage. Seeing this consensus building up between farmers and consumers is a positive and exciting turn. It will sound cynical but the good thing about an unsustainable system is that it is unsustainable and doomed to fail.

      The powers that be don’t want to change this system because they profit from it. The one percent make up a small number of people. The one percent of that one percent is obviously an even smaller group. They are personally acquainted and work hard to protect their empires.

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  6. The problem of the bees and monarchs are intertwined as we know it…and the fallout from our chemical ladened food isn’t just insects it is on us as our health deteriorates and more and more diseases less prevalent are now more so….these chemicals are killing all of us but all these money grubbing creeps can see is the dollar sign….no caring for the long term effects. A great truthful post…thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Donna. You are right: we are all connected by this one planet. What happens to the smallest also affects every member of the system — even humans.

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  7. The companies making the pesticides do so for other companies growing crops that we pay for in finished food products. If enough of us stop buying those food products, they’ll stop growing them. Why do you think those industries put so much money into stopping labeling legislation? An informed consumer is one of their worst nightmares.

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    1. I totally agree. I take great hope in something I learned this summer. Farmers are stepping away from growing these crops. Farmers are finding a better return on growing value added organic crops. In fact, organic corn seed sold out this year. Many farmers reluctantly went GMO because they had no choice. Now there are two forces working to squeeze these people out.

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  8. I get an email each day with headlines from the NYT. I can’t remember the last time I noticed or read an article on the environment. I agree with your comment earlier that ‘…they spend a lot of time looking at pictures and skimming text…’ So true. Good writing often goes unread.

    Thanks for digging into this topic. It is the tip of the iceberg, in a way.

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    1. Mostly I get my news from other sources because I have just seen this pattern too often with the NYT. The pattern being mostly a failure to report (gatekeeping.) When an issue becomes impossible to ignore they write stories with a lot of spin. Just look at their recent descriptions of the guy who was killed in a police choke hold. Was it an ‘arm’ or a police officer that killed the man? They really struggle at showing abuses of power — in any form — and that makes poor journalism.

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        1. I saw a study about journalists. When asked about their bias nearly all thought they were kind of liberal but when asked to participate in a questionnaire their answers showed they were -far- more right wing than the general public. Add that bias to the corporate monopoly that American media has become and the result is pretty ugly. I am pretty happy with the news I get from the Guardian. I should do a little test study on them next. =)

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the link! I wasn’t really surprised at what I found unfortunately. Luckily, there are still a few publications that do a better job.

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  9. There is no enlightened leadership in Washington. And even we had wise leaders, the players are so blind at recognizing objective truth, that there would be no hope whatsoever that any legislation would pass. There is such a thing as objective truth. But neither the voters nor the politicians believe in such a thing any more. For them, it is my party’s truth that is “The Truth”. In the absence of a true meeting of minds, the default apparatus kicks in. This default apparatus is: “status quo.” The status quo means that short term capitalism continues to gobble up resources and protect corporate interests. That’s why the bees, butterflies, rhinos, lions, etc…, may all be gone in our life times.

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  10. Love, love, love this–and I can’t add anything. It is the loss of those millions and millions of acres of land to “herbicide resistant” plants that is the chief culprit of Monarch decline. Yes, tropical milkweed could be adding to the problems of disease and longer, inappropriate breeding times, but the fact that large agribusiness has converted huge swaths of land to sterility is the real issue. Highways, urban expansion with its penchant for sterile lawns and shrubbery also are problems. But that so much land is held, in ways that are detrimental to the overall environment, is the biggest cause of Monarch decline. And you’re right when you state–who knows what else is being damaged. So, so true.

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  11. When I see new highways built, it saddens you to see the state plant all kinds of invasive clover and erosion-prevention plants that choke out any chance of native wildflowers coming back along those roads. A better plan could be implemented, I think.

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      1. In driving along some of the Iowa highways, we occasionally see signs saying not to spray or mow. It is a natural area with more variety of plants, and resulting animals. Good to see those. But, there are not enough.

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        1. No-mow zones are a great start. I like them because they have signs. Each person who passes has the opportunity to think about the issue. And it makes its own advertisement. As the area ages and gets more complex people will see more beauty and come to understand (hopefully) what is at stake. Some will even try to replicate the effect on their own land.

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