Black points to projects like those run by Howorth as key for sustaining species on “life support”. But Xerces also supports projects working to stave off the need for such hands-on rescue.
One such project is the Monarch Challenge, brainchild of Carlo Mondavi – grandson of the renowned winemaker Robert Mondavi – whose mission has been to reduce the harmful impact of vineyards and agriculture on butterfly biodiversity in California’s northern Napa Valley and Sonoma areas.
Mondavi has created a system of wine making that shows it’s possible to farm sustainably and with minimal carbon footprint while adding only 18 cents (13p) to the price of each bottle produced, a model that he says could be adopted by other vineyards.
“I don’t know any of my farmer friends that wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to go spray chemicals.’ Not one of them. They’re terrible for the soil microbiome and the farm algae. And no-one likes working the land in hazmat suits. They all hate it,” Mondavi says.
No herbicides are used at his Raen winery, instead Mondavi relies on “good bugs and good weeds taking care of the bad ones”, to encourage biodiversity.
On top of committing 100% of profits of their pinot noir rosé to growing conservation awareness, the winery also provides packets of milkweed seeds – the natural host-plant habitat for monarch butterflies – with every bottle sold, in the hope this will help repopulate butterfly overwintering sites across America.
But Mondavi’s most exciting product, inspired by the quest to save butterflies, according to the entrepreneurial vintner, is the all-electric Monarch Tractor he’s helped develop with co-founder and chief executive, Praveen Penmetsa.
“Farming is the most important job on our planet. And that means the most important tool right now on the planet is a tractor,” says Penmetsa, of the vehicle they claim is the world’s first fully electric smart tractor. “It’s used in 80% of farm operations yet tractor technology is fundamentally the same as it was a century ago.”
Primarily, that has meant big diesel engines, with corresponding emissions of carbon and air pollutants. While the electric tractor lowers emissions on the farm, Penmetsa hopes the information it provides can help improve sustainability much further. “The data from our tractor platform and AI means a farmer can provide some traceability, data that starts a behaviour change, as well as not using fossil fuels.”
The tractor sells for $58,000 (£43,000), which the makers suggest will be earned back in savings in a matter of years. As well as delivering haulage, the Monarch Tractor has digital cameras as well as temperature, wind speed and weight sensors, all feeding data into a computer that uses machine learning to help the farmer track the productivity of their land.
“It’s unreasonable for us to expect our farmers to solve the problem [of environmental damage], without giving them the tools to do so and a way to make it profitable,” Penmetsa adds.
For Mondavi, the lightbulb moment came with the widespread fires that hit the Napa Valley region in the last few years. “When the wildfires surrounded my family’s farm in 2017, and burned a lot of my very good friends’ homes and communities I realised: ‘Holy smokes, unless we address climate change, what are we fighting for?’ And so the really incredible thing about the tractor is it’s a bridge away from our dependence on fossil fuel.”