José Andrés: Why We Need to Protect Monarch Butterflies

I have a special connection to monarch butterflies.

If you’ve been to my Mexican restaurant in Washington, DC, you may understand. You see, the beautiful mobiles of butterflies twirling from the ceiling represent this forest located in Central Mexico filled with Oyamel fir trees, which is also the name of my restaurant. Every year, several hundred million Monarch butterflies make a journey to this very unique place located high up in the mountains of Michoacán. The butterflies travel over 2500 miles from Canada to seek refuge within the waxy needles of those fir trees, making a quiet “shhh” sound as they flap their wings.  It is truly an astonishing act of nature.

During my many visits to Mexico to learn more about its regions, its culture and cuisines in preparation for my restaurant, I heard tales of the this forest—this majestic place that’s blanketed in gold every October through March. During the summer of 2003, I finally got to go see it with my wife and my three daughters. While it wasn’t wintering season, I was captivated by it and fell in love with the story of the Monarch butterfly.

Photo of monarch butterflies.

Photograph by Johanna Madjedi

Unfortunately, such an enchanting creature has a sad tale to tell. Every year less and less of them are arriving to winter in the Oyamel firs. In 1997, it was estimated that almost a billion Monarch butterflies traveled to the forest, but just this past year, it was found that the population was only 33 million, the lowest count ever recorded.

So, you might be asking yourself, why should I care about the butterflies? While you may have not had the same experience among the Oyamel fir trees like I did, we all need to care about them. The decline of these butterflies is a reminder of how the way we are feeding ourselves is harmful to our environment. Monarchs are just one example of how our farming is hurting pollinators. Without pollinators, many of our favorite crops would be gone.  The rapid decline in honeybees has captured many headlines, but our voracious appetite for agriculture is affecting Monarch butterflies, too. Each year, our farms plow away more and more land, in many cases for crops that won’t even end up on our plates, and spray harmful pesticides to keep those crops strong. Each time they plow a little land or spray a chemical solution, they’re killing the Monarch’s main source of food, milkweeds, and preventing them from being able to reproduce.

As we continue to hurt them, we in turn are hurt. Without pollinators, we wouldn’t have plump, juicy tomatoes to chop up and put in our salads or purée with garlic to spread on fresh bread. Without them, we wouldn’t have amazing avocados to dice up and put in our salads or a ceviche. Without them, we wouldn’t have a lot of our favorite foods, such as almonds, melons, cucumbers, or cauliflower. Without them, our food system would almost be lost.

Photo of monarch butterflies.

Photograph by Johanna Madjedi

This is not groundbreaking news, and it’s a message that has already been shared here on National Geographic, too, but it’s a message that deserves repeating if it continues to go on ignored. There are already a lot of people working to make sure that this does not happen. Groups all over the country are helping us understand why saving a bit of land for these species, or giving them a little room to grow and thrive, will benefit us all.

The people at World Wildlife Federation devote themselves to studying and reporting the numbers of Monarchs that overwinter in Mexico’s forests each year, and with their research they work with local communities to create economic benefits for ensuring sustainable uses of these forests. The Center for Food Safety have made huge steps in Washington to create laws that will protect these species, and their victories are seen everywhere from Capitol Hill to the marketplace, because they not only protect milkweeds, but they also make the food we eat better, too, by reducing the use of harmful pesticides for growing many of the foods we buy.

My friends Gary Paul Nabhan and Ina Warren of Make Way for Monarchs are working to educate everyone who is involved with this issue, including the farmer, the rancher, the consumer, and even the highway landscape designers and maintenance workers. The government is getting involved, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with the Xerces Society, an organization focused on protecting endangered species such as Monarchs, on teaching land owners across the country the benefits of conserving some of their land for pollinators. One study shows a farmer in Michigan who agreed to plant wildflowers in between his rows of blueberry plants learned that he saved 80 percent in cash from not having to spray pesticides or rent honeybee hives to protect his crops.

Photo of a monarch butterfly.

Photograph by William Warby

This effort doesn’t have to just rest in the hands of scientists and farmers, either, because we can all profit from nurturing pollinators. Many people are beginning to see why urban beekeeping is a way to keep a city’s environment clean and to improve local food production, and laws are being passed to make it legal for everyday citizens to raise bees on their own property. My non-profit World Central Kitchen works with a co-op of women in the Dominican Republic, who are able to support their entire village because of beekeeping, by making a living from the honey they produce. Even scientists benefit from the study of pollinators, and in turn their studies help them create more sustainable solutions for us to grow food, too.

These insects’ survival is so much more vital than saving something that’s pretty to look at or that serves as a piece of inspiration for a restaurant. They affect us just as much as we affect them, and it’s time to stop looking at them as an insect we can crush.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.