By: Mateusz Perkowski

A petition to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species has set the stage for another battle over biotech crops.

Federal regulators think monarch butterflies may be a threatened species, which could eventually provide biotechnology critics with a new justification for restricting genetically engineered crops.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently said the butterfly may warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act, finding that environmental groups have furnished “substantial” data that indicates federal protection for the insect may be necessary.

Environmentalists claim that widespread adoption of “Roundup Ready” biotech crops resistant to glyphosate herbicides has increased usage of these chemicals, depleting the monarch’s milkweed habitat and drastically reducing its populations.

The Endangered Species Act is a “very powerful” tool that environmentalists hope to use against glyphosate and, by proxy, herbicide-tolerant biotech crops, said Jay Vroom, executive director of Croplife America, an agribusiness group.

“It’s a real concern, without a doubt,” he said. “To single out the GE resistance and glyphosate technology is suspect and does not comport with scientific trends.”

The petition to list monarch butterflies as threatened is a new tactic in a broader campaign to discourage the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, said Damien Schiff, an attorney specializing in property rights and environmental law.

In the past, pesticide opponents have successfully used the Endangered Species Act to require the federal government to increase its scrutiny of various chemicals and limit their uses, he said.

“This is an element of the same general strategy,” Schiff said.

If environmentalists succeed in obtaining a listing for the monarch butterfly, it would implicate the spraying of glyphosate and other herbicides on biotech crops across the large geographic area occupied by the species, Schiff said.

Monarch butterflies in the Midwest — where they’re most populous — overwinter in mountainous areas of Mexico, while those in the West overwinter on the California coast.

“That raises the possibility of a huge critical habitat designation,” Schiff said.

Biotech critics were dealt a major legal setback in 2013, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the USDA lacked authority to regulate genetically engineered crops that are not plant pests.

That opinion undermined the effectiveness of lawsuits challenging USDA’s environmental analysis of transgenic crops. Such cases had previously hindered the commercialization of “Roundup Ready” alfalfa and sugar beets.

Biotech critics have since shifted their approach. Recent efforts, for example, have focused on encouraging states and local governments to label or restrict genetically engineered crops.

Environmental groups say their ESA listing petition is motivated by a desire to halt the steep decline in monarch populations rather than an anti-biotech agenda.

Over the past two decades, the number of monarchs has dropped from roughly 1 billion to less than 35 million, their petition claims.

Even so, the environmental groups believe the main hazard facing the insect is the loss of summer breeding habitat due to GMO-related glyphosate applications, said Tierra Curry, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the petitioners.

“We think one of the largest threats right now is increased pesticide use,” she said.

Defenders of pesticides and biotechnology discount this argument, pointing out that farmers have removed milkweed from their fields prior to the advent of biotechnology or glyphosate.

“We’ve been controlling milkweed a lot longer than Roundup has been available,” said Vroom of Croplife America.

The petitioners argue that unlike older herbicides, glyphosate kills the perennial plant’s roots and prevents it from regenerating. The chemical is also much more prevalent now that major commodity crops can withstand it, they say.

“We do see a very strong correlation,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director for the Xerces Society, another petitioner. “I just don’t think farmers were (previously) as effectively controlling milkweed.”

If the species is listed, a possible remedy could involve farmers setting aside reserves free of biotech crops resistant to glyphosate, allowing milkweed to recover, she said.

The USFWS is unlikely to take drastic measures, said Curry. “I don’t think the Service is going to come out and tell people they can’t grow Roundup Ready crops.”

Possible restrictions would also not be immediate — the agency probably won’t decide whether or not to list the monarch until 2016, and then require another year to finalize the rules, she said.

The pesticide industry does not believe a listing is justified and plans to oppose the listing petition, said Vroom. “This is another marathon journey.”

Originally Published: Capital Press