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Monsanto vs. The Monarchs: The Fight to Save the World’s Most Stunning Butterfly Migration

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Monarch butterflies are pretty impressive insects: Aside from that whole metamorphosis thing, they're famous for their annual winter migration, an up to 3,000-mile journey across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The breathtaking spectacle that results when they alight, by the millions, in central Mexico is the sort that inspires legends, not to mention sustains the country's tourist industry.

But if the monarchs can be said to have a fatal flaw, it's that they're are entirely dependent upon milkweed. And milkweed, once common in the American Midwest, has been all but eliminated from the cropland where it once thrived, the loss a side effect of our growing, and increasingly efficient, industrial agriculture system. While the monarch itself isn't yet endangered, its stunning migration could soon become a thing of the past.

There are actually a lot of places where we can place the blame for this. The push, by Congress, to use corn-based ethanol as biofuel didn't help matters, and climate change certainly isn't doing the butterflies any favors, either. The question now is what we're going to do about it. Enter Chip Taylor, insect ecologist and founder of Monarch Watch. The group, which has been operating since 1992 out of the University of Kansas, is hard at work on an enticingly simple solution to all this: if the loss of milkweed is killing the butterflies, then maybe, just maybe, what we need to do is plant more milkweed.

There's a little more to it, of course. But, as Taylor told Salon, it's a promising start. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Berkeley Food Institute agree: this May, they honored him with a Growing Green award for his work as a "pollinator protector." Taylor spoke with Salon about his 22-year campaign to protect the monarchs, and made a heck of a case for why they're worth the effort. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.