(Beyond Pesticides, April 7, 2009) McDonald’s Corp., the largest purchaser of potatoes in the United States, has agreed to take steps towards adopting a program that might reduce the amount of pesticides used in producing potatoes for its U.S. restaurants. As the largest buyer of potatoes in the nation, McDonald’s also said it would share information regarding the use of pesticides in the production of its products.
At the same time, the market for organic potatoes is growing. A bulletin by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service states, “Organic potatoes in Maine are an industry that is increasing in scope and in value. Organic potatoes may bring a premium price in the marketplace, because many consumers understand that organic practices not only produce safe, high-quality food; they preserve topsoil and reduce pollution. Organically grown foods are flavorful and nutritious, which is why gourmet restaurants are increasingly seeking organic suppliers. Potatoes and Maine have a long tradition together, perhaps because potatoes can be stored for use during the long Maine winter. Organic potatoes and Maine may have a long tradition together as well.”
This new development is the result of an agreement with a shareholder group concerning the company’s pesticides use. Following the agreement, the Bard College Endowment, Newground Social Investment and the AFL-CIO Reserve Fund, withdrew a shareholder proposal they were going to present at the company’s annual meeting which would have required the company to publish a report on options for cutting pesticide use in its supply. The shareholders said the company’s commitment will support progress on the pesticide issues that affect the environment, public health, and farm employees.
The three investor groups teamed with Investor Environmental Health Network to engage McDonald’s in talks about pesticide reduction. Through the agreement, McDonald’s has committed to:
”¢ survey its current U.S. potato suppliers;
”¢ compile a list of best practices in pesticide reduction that will be recommended to the company’s global suppliers (through the company’s Global Potato Board); and
”¢ communicate findings related to best practices to shareholders, as well as in the company’s annual corporate social responsibility report.
The details of the agreement were developed by shareholders and McDonald’s, with support Investor Environmental Health Network, which is a collaborative partnership of investment managers advised by nongovernmental organizations concerned about the financial and public health risks associated with corporate toxic chemicals policies.
“Because McDonald’s has such a commanding presence in the marketplace, this commitment offers the promise of significant reductions of pesticide use — which will benefit consumer health, as well as farm workers, local agricultural communities, and the environment,” said Newground Social Investment Chief Executive Bruce Herbert, who is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Children’s Environmental Health.
“Consumers, workers and our environment all suffer from over-use of pesticides,” said John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO. “As investors, we knew McDonald’s could take an important first step and we’re ready to work with the company to change and grow.”
Potatoes are a heavy user of pesticides and use more pounds of pesticides per acre than most crops. Farmers often spray on a weekly basis, or even more frequently to try to prevent blight. They also spray herbicides to kill the tops of the plants at the end of the growing season to make the underground tubers easier to harvest. Over 40 toxic pesticides are used on potatoes including ethoprop, mancozeb, chlorothalonil, EPTC and metribuzin. Most of these pesticides are linked to serious chronic effects such as cancer, endocrine disruption and reproductive/developmental effects. Many leach to groundwater and contaminate surface waters. Intensive potato cultivation and pesticides usage have been implicated in the high rates of rare cancers in young children in rural western Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada. The island farming community of about 14,000 has experienced occurrences of osteosarcoma, several lymphomas, Ewing’s sarcoma, and a number of myeloid leukemia cases, all among children.
For more information on potatoes and pesticides read the factsheet entitled “Sustainable Potato Production” by the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP).