By Dr. Mercola
McDonald's is the world's biggest purchaser of potatoes,1 buying more than 3.4 billion pounds of U.S.-grown potatoes a year2 and processing them primarily into their well-known french fries and hash browns. Many would assume that it's in this fried form that they pose the most danger — at least to the health of those who choose to eat them — but the potatoes the fast-food giant relies on are dangerous before they even come out of the ground.
Potatoes are a very chemical-intensive crop, and in areas where they're grown extensively — like Minnesota, which is home to more than 50,000 acres of potato crops — the resulting pesticide drift is harming people and livestock and polluting the water and air. Now, a group of small farmers, White Earth Indian Reservation members and other community residents have created Toxic Taters, a coalition that's calling on potato growers to reduce their pesticide use — and they're calling on McDonald's to help.
Pesticide Drift From Potato Crops Causing Major Problems
Potato fields may be sprayed with toxic pesticides every five days during the height of the growing season, with the drift easily traveling to neighboring farms, homes and schools. Monitoring for airborne pesticides was conducted in central Minnesota from June 2006 to August 2009, and low to moderate levels of the fungicide chlorothalonil were detected in the air.3
Out of 340 air samples taken, one or more pesticides, including chlorothalonil, chlorpyrifos, pendimethalin, PCNB and the Agent Orange ingredient 2,4-D, were found in 66 percent of them. According to Toxic Taters:4
"Pesticides used in potato production are known to have harmful effects on human health. Fungicides chlorothalonil and mancozeb are probable carcinogens. The insecticide chlorpyrifos can disrupt nervous system development in children. Metam sodium — a chemical commonly used for soil fumigation in potato fields — is highly volatile and a likely carcinogen."
Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pesticide Data Program revealed that 35 pesticide residues may be found on potatoes. This includes:5
- Six known or probable carcinogens
- 12 suspected hormone disruptors
- Seven neurotoxins
- Six developmental or reproductive toxins
- Nine honeybee toxins
More than 80 percent of potatoes may contain residues of the herbicide chlorpropham, which is used to control sprouting of potatoes during long-term storage, while more than 25 percent may contain residues of the neonicotinoid imidacloprid. Pre-plant soil fumigation, intended to control fungal diseases and weeds, is common in potato growing as well and only adds to the pesticide burden.
In 2011, research published in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that soil applications with fumigants were responsible for the largest percentage (45 percent) of cases of pesticide poisoning from drift exposure,6 with agricultural workers and residents in agricultural regions having the highest poisoning rates (including 14 percent of cases occurring in children aged 15 and younger).
McDonald's Pledged to Cut Pesticide Use — in 2009
Following the concerning results of the airborne pesticide drift study, including the fact that much of the drift was coming from one of their top suppliers, Ronald D. Offutt Company (RDO, the largest potato producer in the U.S.), McDonald's pledged to reduce pesticide use. That was in 2009, and today nothing much has changed, although McDonald's was able to spin some positive press out of the situation, according to Pesticide Action Network (PAN):
"The community met with McDonald's representatives and explained the evidence — that toxic pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, chlorothalonil and 2,4-D, were drifting into their communities on a regular basis each summer. In response, 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. Meanwhile in Minnesota, communities in the area continued to be plagued by drifting pesticides."
While some residents plagued by pesticide drift have been forced to leave their homes and land, others have stayed and watched livestock die as a result. Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, resident Amy Mondlock told The Progressive, "In this area, everybody knows someone who has cancer or who has had a family member die … We are breathing [pesticides], we are drinking the water, we are dealing with the soil as well."7
Initially, PAN teamed up with area farmers and residents in a grassroots effort to stop the potato pesticide problem. They’ve testified to the state Legislature, negotiated with the producer and talked to agencies, but still haven’t gotten anywhere. Toxic Taters is intended to help bring the issue to the public eye; perhaps it will take public outcry for McDonald’s to finally step up and listen.
Is McDonald's Demand for Perfect Potatoes Driving Increased Pesticide Use?
In August 2017, The Progressive reported, the Toxic Tater Coalition, along with 35 other organizations, sent a letter to McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook, again calling on them to meet and determine a strategy to cut pesticide use on their potato products while also having their suppliers disclose the chemicals being used on their potatoes.8
The company did not respond to The Progressive's request for comment, but if you'd like to add your "2 cents," you can sign PAN's letter to Easterbrook urging McDonald's to transition to truly sustainable potato production.
As EcoWatch put it, if anyone has the power to change the situation virtually overnight, it's them. "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."9
As they say, it's not only in Minnesota that potato pesticides are a problem. In other potato-growing states, like Idaho, pesticide usage is also heavy, and in the video above author and activist Michael Pollan explains how McDonald's quest for the "perfect potato" may be adding to the problem. For starters, the company refuses to buy potatoes with net necrosis, which can cause a dark line or blemish in the potato.
To get rid of this, producers use a toxic pesticide called methamidophos (Monitor), which, according to Pollan, "is so toxic that the farmers who grow these potatoes in Idaho won't venture outside and into their fields for five days after they spray." The potatoes can't be consumed immediately after harvest because of all the chemicals, so they're left to off-gas for six weeks in football stadium-sized sheds.
Farmworkers Also Suffer From Pesticide Poisoning
Farmworkers and their families are additional victims in this unsustainable cycle of pesticide usage. Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that 20,000 farmworkers are poisoned by pesticides each year. The actual number is likely far higher, as many of the workers may not seek medical care or may be misdiagnosed if they do seek treatment.
There is also no coordinated national incident reporting system to track such exposures. Despite this, pesticide exposures cause farmworkers more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce nationwide. According to a report from Farmworker Justice:10
"Farmworkers are exposed to pesticides in a variety of ways. Workers who perform hand labor tasks in treated areas risk exposure from direct spray, aerial drift, or contact with pesticide residues on the crop or soil …
Even when not working in the fields, farmworker families, especially children, are also at risk of elevated pesticide exposure. Workers bring pesticides into their homes in the form of residues on their tools, clothes, shoes, and skin. They inadvertently expose their children through a hug if they cannot shower after work.
The close proximity of agricultural fields to residential areas results in aerial drift of pesticides into farmworkers' homes, schools, and playgrounds. Some schoolyards are directly adjacent to fields of crops that are sprayed with pesticides. Pesticide exposure is an unavoidable reality for farmworkers and their families because pesticides are in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and the soil they cultivate."
Meanwhile, at ToxicTaters.org you can read a collection of stories from people who have been personally affected by living near large-scale agricultural operations. Alongside reports from local residents experiencing nausea, headaches, problems with pregnancy and speech and breathing difficulties are stories of discouragement from residents who feel their voices are not being heard.
Dianne Wylie, a Minnesota resident, explained, "A man from a Minneapolis government agency tested my property in 2004 [or] '05 (I can't remember which). What I do remember is his findings ... saying yes there is drift, but off the record I will tell you it won't go anywhere unless you have thousands of dollars to waste suing, and you still lose, or lose everything you own because others have tried."11
Another Minnesota resident Don Twaddle, whose farm was contaminated with the potato fungicide chlorothanonil, noted, "Our local, state and federal governments seem unwilling to actually do much to protect us or the environment. I am really discouraged."12
Most Farmers Could Reduce Pesticides Without Harming Production
Worldwide, an estimated 7.7 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year, and that number is steadily increasing.13 However, in a study of nearly 1,000 French farms, there was no conflict seen between low pesticide use and high productivity and profitability in 77 percent of the farms. Further, the researchers found 59 percent of them could cut pesticide usage by 42 percent without harming their production. Forty percent of these farms would even improve their production as a result.14
Crop rotation, mechanical weeding and other nonchemical forms of pest control were mentioned as ways that farmers could successfully lessen pesticide use. In Idaho, potato growers have also had success using integrated pest management strategies, cutting pesticide use while increasing their profits.15 The major barrier at this time appears to be education, as many farmers lack the information and resources necessary to replace chemicals with other options.16
For now, if you'd like to stand with the people of Minnesota who are tired of drifting pesticides ruining their lives, tell McDonald's to stop selling toxic taters — and stop buying them as well.