McDonald’s french fries are suspected of killing farm animals and poisoning wildlife and Minnesotans, including students and farmers. No, it’s not the high cholesterol or deep frying that’s in question – or the crappy ingredients (i.e., genetically modified oils, sugar, and anti-foaming agents). It’s the pesticide drift that’s applied every five to seven days on commercial potato fields that’s plaguing the state.
McDonald’s buys more than 3.4 billion pounds of U.S.-grown potatoes every year. They are the single largest consumer of potatoes in Central Minnesota and the northwestern region. Potato fields cover the landscape, stretching for 45,000 acres in every direction. Thanks to pesticide drift, residents living near potato fields have developed serious chronic health problems, and some small farms have lost livestock.
Research published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives reports that skin, lung, and intestinal irritations are linked to some incidences of pesticide drift, with the most acute reactions among children.
Using “drift catchers,” a group of concerned citizens formed the Toxic Taters Coalition and discovered that chemicals, such as chlorothalonil (classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “highly toxic” and a “probable” carcinogen), chlorpyrifos, pendimethalin, PCNB, and 2,4-D were present in 66 percent of the air samples they tested throughout Central Minnesota. That’s why conventionally (aka chemically) grown potatoes make the top 10 fruits and vegetables to avoid for pesticide residue.
“Clearly, modern industrial agriculture is endangering our food supply and (sic) ecosystem and harming our health—all in the name of so-called food production,” says White Earth Indian Reservation resident Robert Shimek, one of the campaign’s founding members.
Shimek explains that this issue is especially troubling for his community, which has already been displaced:
“That place of the white clay that has been reserved for us. You know, we were supposed to come here, this was supposed to be a safe place for us to live in perpetuity. And, it’s not,” he says in a video produced by the Toxic Taters.
In 2006 the coalition, along with Pesticide Action Network, initially tried working with state agencies and the region’s largest potato producer, R.D. Offutt Company, to document the pesticide problem in the potato-producing regions of Minnesota. Under pressure from shareholders, McDonald’s laid out a plan in 2009 for reduced pesticide use.
According to PAN, “McDonald’s made a big public show of their commitment to reduce pesticides, winning them quite a bit of positive attention. The company had their producers take a survey about sustainable practices, but instead of publicizing actual reductions in pesticide use, they simply launched an ad campaign praising their potato producers.”
Overall, the coalition’s concerns went largely unaddressed.
“Now we are turning to consumers and the public to help us demand change,” says Shimek. They want McDonald’s to get its largest potato supplier, R.D. Offutt Company, to cut back on hazardous pesticides.
Shimek believes McDonald’s will hear the people out, just like they did on the issue of Styrofoam cups back in 2013. But let’s also remember that it took McDonald’s 20 years to phase out polystyrene-based, clamshell food containers, despite knowing their negative environmental impact.
It’s up to us to make some noise. Are we going to poison birds, bees, beings, frogs, and animals in the name of substandard, fattening fries?
As the largest buyer of potatoes in the world, McDonald’s, a $7 billion fast-food chain, has the power to create change in potato-producing regions way beyond Minnesota. All it has to do is require its potato suppliers implement strategies to reduce the use of pesticides.
The Organic Consumers Association, along with the Toxic Tater Coalition, is urging folks to create a buzz. They want McDonald’s to require RDO, and other companies that supply its potatoes, “to follow the lead of Idaho potato growers who have successfully used integrated pest management strategies to reduce pesticide use. Interestingly, by implementing IPM techniques, Idaho potato growers have also increased their profits.”
Tell McDonald’s to do the right thing and transition to truly sustainable potato production. Sign the petition for sustainable potato production now.
Learn more at Toxic Taters.
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.