Corporate Giving Hall of Shame: Chump Change to Save Butterflies Killed Off for Profit

You’ve probably heard something about the mass decline of bees. Bee die-offs and hive abandonment have spiked in recent years, alarming scientists, conservationists and gardening enthusiasts alike. The news for bees hasn’t been good, and sadly, yet another one of our winged insect friends is also suffering a troubling decline.

The monarch butterfly—the beautiful orange, black and white one—has seen its population numbers plunge by more than 90 percent across the U.S. in the past 20 years, dropping from 1 billion to fewer than 60 million. With a drop off so staggering, monarchs are now being considered for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. While some of the monarch dropoff can be blamed on habitat destruction, many environmentalists believe the butterfly's decline is associated in part with the longtime use of the herbicide Roundup, produced by the agrochemical conglomerate Monsanto. More about that in a minute.

Last week, as part of an initial effort to stem the decline of monarch butterflies, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) awarded 22 grants totaling $3.3 million to fund winning proposals that address three key strategies for saving the monarch butterfly: (1) habitat restoration, (2) coordination and capacity building, and (3) seed supply and availability. Through these grants—which will be matched by more than $6.7 million from the recipients for a total on-the-ground impact of $10 million— NFWF hopes to restore as much as 33,000 acres of critical Monarch habitats in more than a dozen states across the continental United States. According to a press release: 

Many of [the] biggest grants—roughly $250,000 apiece—went to efforts to bolster grasslands and other habitat in key monarch butterfly migration corridors. One project looks to restore more than 1,000 acres of monarch habitat in the Dakotas, while another includes the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation's quest to create or improve 7,000 habitat acres along two of the butterfly's major north-south migration routes.

So where does Monsanto fit in to this picture? 

The NFWF reports that about $1.2 million of the grant money this year comes directly from the St. Louis-based and oft-maligned corporation, backing up a March commitment Monsanto made to monarch conservation of $4 million over the next few years, primarily through contributions to the foundation's Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund. 

To put Monsanto's butterfly giving in perspective, the company's sales of Roundup totaled $1.2 billion in a recent year.

As for that controversial product, a scientific report by the Center for Food Safety released earlier this year documented the "severe impacts of herbicide-resistant genetically engineered (GE) crops on the monarch population, which has plummeted over the past 20 years. The report makes it abundantly clear: Two decades of Roundup Ready crops have nearly eradicated milkweed—the monarch caterpillar’s sole source of food—in cropland of the monarch’s vital Midwest breeding ground."

'“This report is a wake-up call. This iconic species is on the verge of extinction because of Monsanto's Roundup Ready crop system,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the center. “To let the monarch butterfly die out in order to allow Monsanto to sell its signature herbicide for a few more years is simply shameful.”

Using philanthropy to impersonate a good guy, here, is shameful, too, and plays into the deep distrust many already have for Monsanto. It also underscores a recurring theme at Inside Philanthropy: While corporate philanthropy has improved overall in recent years, it still has its dark corners and gross hypocrisies. We regularly highlight the many good things that corporate funders are doing, but it's important to shine a light on what's wrong with some of this giving, as we've done recently in the case of Coca Cola's support for junk science and Walmart's giving for hunger groups when thousands of its employees rely on food stamps due to their low wages. 


We should note that even some of the bad corporate giving may be part of a bigger picture that includes good philanthropy, too. That's certainly the case with both Walmart and Coca Cola, and we've noted many of their positive initiatives. 

Monsanto's charitable arm, the Monsanto Fund, appears to do some good things toward its mission of improving lives in farming communities around the world. These include supporting education in these communities, as well as basic needs like food security and sanitation.  

Interestingly, none of Monsanto’s funding areas explicitly include environmental protection or conservation, which is one more reason this latest push to save the butterflies is so suspect.