Environment

The Dark Side of McDonald's World-Famous Fries

The pesticides used on potato farms in rural Minnesota are harming human health and the environment.

Photo Credit: 1000 Words/Shutterstock.com

There's no doubt that McDonald's french fries are, as the company regularly trumpets, "world famous." But like many who are touched by fame, those legendary taters have a dark side that remains largely hidden from public view. And this dark side has nothing to do with the obesity crisis.

McDonald's purchases more than 3.4 billion pounds of potatoes grown in the United States every year. The company's preferred variety is Russet Burbank. While certainly delicious to the "billions served," the problem with this 130-year-old variety is its susceptibility to rot and other diseases, which means farmers regularly employ a significant amount of pesticides on their crops.

Rural communities in northern Minnesota that live near potato farms that supply the Golden Arches have had enough. They have become victims of "pesticide drift," in which the wind carries sprays and dusts away from the farms where they are used to other regions, negatively impacting public health, the environment and other crops. In Minnesota, where 98 percent of the state's 50,000 acres of potatoes are sprayed with chemicals to prevent the growth of fungus — as often as every five days during the height of the growing season — pesticide drift is a major problem. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 10 percent of agricultural pesticide sprays drift from the target crop.

According to air quality tests across several Minnesota counties conducted between 2006-2009, a third of air samples test positive for one or more pesticides, including probable carcinogens like chlorothalonil and pendimethalin, chlorpyrifos (which has shown to disrupt nervous system development in children), PCNB (a probable carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor) and 2,4‐D (a possible carcinogen that puts male farm workers who use the product at risk for abnormally shaped sperm).

The potato purchasing power of McDonald's gives it the power to dictate policy in the American potato industry. Jeanne Debons, the director of the Potato Variety Management Institute describes the situation as "a card game where McDonald's holds nine-tenths of the cards."

For its part, McDonald's defends the use of pesticides on conventional potato farms and has tried to assuage public fears. According to a statement on the company's website:

Our suppliers source potatoes from conventional farmers, many of which use pesticides to protect their crops, including potatoes. If they didn’t apply pesticides, the quality of the potatoes would be affected. The use of pesticides is highly regulated and we expect any farmers in our extended supply chain to operate within regulated limits determined to be safe. We have engaged our suppliers and U.S. potato growers to identify best practices in pesticide reduction and are seeing progress in better management.

But claims of progress aren't enough for the residents of northern Minnesota. A group of small farmers, White Earth tribal members and other rural community members have banded together to form the Toxic Taters Coalition in order to mobilize direct action and put pressure on McDonald's and its potato suppliers to stop contaminating their communities with toxic pesticide drift.

The group suspects that drift is the culprit behind residents' chronic health problems as well as the deaths of livestock and wild birds. "The companies responsible need to stop this chemical trespass into our land, air, water and our lives," said coalition member Bob Shimek, a resident of Mud Lake, Minnesota.

The group has publicized its case at McDonald’s stores across the state, organized a tour of an organic potato farm and urged the company's shareholders to speak up on this important issue. They have called on McDondald's to require that its potato suppliers release information about their chemical use, achieve measurable and significant decrease in the use of toxic pesticides, and adopt sustainable agricultural practices. They have also asked the company to fund an independent study of the effect of potato production on human and environmental health.

In addition to negative impact on human and animal health and ecological impacts, pesticide drift causes economic loss on several fronts. According to the EPA, up to 70 million pounds of pesticides are wasted due to pesticide drift every year. These drifting chemicals can damage crops on nearby farms, making them unsellable. The EPA notes that each year, thousands of complaints about pesticide drift lodged with state and local agencies require "substantial resources" to investigate.

Without legal or governmental intervention — or public pressure — McDonald's may not be so willing to change its potato suppliers or demand that they use less toxic pesticides on their crops. Generating public outcry on this issue may be difficult; the gustatory lure of those famous fries may be too powerful to ignore.

"Americans who walk through McDonald's restaurants' doors do so to indulge," writes food reporter Robert A. Ferdman in an article for the Washington Post earlier this year about the ingredients in McDondald's fries (there are 19). "People visit cheap burger chains for a respite from their (hopefully) healthier dietary regimens, not for yet another reminder from their conscience that they could be eating something better for them."

Still, activists remain hopeful that as their message gets out, consumers will join their cause. "If people knew how the french fries they eat are contributing to the health and environmental problems of others, I think they would care," said Carol Ashley, a member of Toxic Taters Coalition from Park Rapids, Minnesota. "McDonald's needs to look at who's growing their potatoes. They talk about sustainability, and I think this is a part of that picture. Is it healthy and sustainable for the community that lives nearby?"

Environmental groups remain confident that, if and when the fast food giant decides to change its potato policy, the situation may change fairly quickly. The prospect of losing a buyer of McDonald's stature is simply too much to ignore for a conventional potato farmer. "McDonald's can do this," the Pesticide Action Network of North America asserted in a recent email. "As one of the largest buyers of potatoes in the world, McDonald's can change what happens in potato fields across the country."

In his epic poem "The Divine Comedy," Dante proclaimed, "Worldly fame is nothing but a breath of wind, that now blows here, and now there." Unfortunately for the residents of rural Minnesota, the breath of wind that carries McDondald's world-famous fries seems to blow only in one direction.