A small group of Minnesota residents concerned about possible health effects of living near potato fields is waging a campaign against spuds, with financial backing from a national organization that opposes pesticide use.
Toxic Taters, which uses the Pesticide Action Network’s nonprofit status for fundraising, has protested McDonald’s restaurants and a large Minnesota farm, R.D. Offutt.
Industry sources note Offutt is among the most environmentally progressive farms in the country and say the protesters are making an emotional appeal devoid of facts.
Toxic Taters coordinator Amy Mondloch said the organization, which has about 15 core members, organized 40 protests of McDonald’s restaurants throughout the country on Oct. 6 and has obtained 30,000 signatures on petitions asking McDonald’s to demand reduced pesticide use from its suppliers.
In an email to Capital Press, McDonald’s responded, “As part of our 2009 commitment, we require a comprehensive audit of U.S. potato growers annually to identify best practices in pesticide reduction, as well as water and fertilizer use.”
American Falls, Idaho, grower Jim Tiede, the incoming National Potato Council president, said growers limit their pesticide use by necessity to cut costs. Tiede follows a University of Idaho pesticide management plan to streamline chemical use. Tiede noted NPC has spearheaded development of a farm sustainability program, driven by customer demands. McDonald’s is helping to develop the plan, Tiede said.
Tiede emphasized that farmers’ families live by their fields, and chemical application guidelines are strict. He believes the industry should respond to such “scare tactics.”
“It’s a lot of innuendos and not-quite truths to scare consumers not to buy potatoes,” Tiede said. “In the big picture, I think it hurts the image of the potato.”
Current NPC President Dan Lake, of Ronan, Mont., said ever-tightening regulations have driven the industry to continually implement more environmentally sound practices and products. Within the next decade, Lake predicts the industry will utilize more biological products.
Lake said the industry responds to emotional appeals, such as “Toxic Taters,” by looking at the “science side of things.”
Rupert, Idaho, potato researcher Jeff Miller said potato residue levels are safe, and any claim to the contrary is irresponsible. But he acknowledges fry buyers could further limit chemical use by sourcing new spud varieties with improved pest and disease resistance.
Mondloch said Toxic Taters has requested data on the Offutt and McDonald’s sustainability plans, a list of chemicals applied by Offutt and funding for studies on health impacts of homes near farms.
R.D. Offutt officials emphasized environmental milestones highlighted on the company website, including reducing phosphorus by 40 percent and nitrogen by 10 percent on its Park Rapids, Minn., farm, planting 2,500 acres of trees as drift buffers, cutting tillage in half through precision agriculture, water savings through high-tech irrigation methods and minimized leaching with slow-release fertilizer.
PAN has provided Toxic Taters members with equipment to test for drift in their yards. In general, PAN advocates for stricter Environmental Protection Agency risk-assessment guidelines for pesticides relying on less industry-generated data, the phasing out of certain restricted pesticides and more analysis of long-term health impacts of low pesticide doses, said PAN official Lex Horan.