All-Day Breakfast at McD's Isn’t a Cause for Celebration for Pesticide Activists

McDonald's potato farms are blamed for incidents of chemical drift that affect nearby communities.

Protesters picket against pesticides in McDonald's fries on Oct. 6 in Minneapolis. (Photo: Courtesy ToxicTaters.org)

Oct 6, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

With fears abated that hash browns wouldn't be included in McDonald’s all-day breakfast service, the new hours of the popular menu are a cause for celebration if you're a fan of egg sandwiches and fried potatoes.

But for the people behind "Toxic Taters," a campaign run by the Pesticide Action Network, the problem isn’t with what shape of potato hits the fryer but how the potatoes are grown. The group organized protests at McDonald’s locations around the country on Tuesday to coincide with the debut of expanded breakfast hours, calling on the company to clean up its potato supply chain.

The restaurant chain, which uses 3.4 billion pounds of spuds annually, is the country’s largest buyer of potatoes. Were it to require new pesticide management practices on the farms it contracts with, it could create an industry-wide change. Some are hoping that will happen with American poultry, now that McDonald’s says it will only buy meat that has been raised without antibiotics.

The chain said it would look into reforming pesticide practices in 2009, but residents in north-central Minnesota are seeing more negative effects from the expanding potato farms in the region. McDonald's largest potato supplier and the country's largest potato grower, R.D. Offutt, was started in Minnesota and continues to opperate there on a large scale.

“As soon as the potatoes moved in, our lives changed,” Holly Ward, who is part of the Toxic Taters Coalition and lives in Perham, Minnesota, said in a press release. “Earlier this summer I was working in my garden when I started to feel burning in my nose, eyes, mouth and skin. I looked up and saw a helicopter spraying the field next door and a yellow-green cloud of pesticide drifting into my yard. There was damage to all of the plants in my garden. My family couldn’t eat the vegetables we’d grown for the rest of the summer.”

The expansion of potato farms in the region is causing so much deforestation that earlier this year the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources halted projects that would clear jack pines to make way for potatoes while an environmental review is conducted. In addition to habitat loss, there are concerns that the groundwater could be contaminated by new farming operations.

In 2012, a study conducted by "Toxic Taters" found that chlorothalonil, a fungicide commonly used on potato farms, was present at two-thirds of the 19 off-farm locations it monitored in central Minnesota. The state Department of Agriculture announced best-management practices in 2013 to combat drift, but the measures are voluntary.

Research conducted at the University of Florida found that chlorothalonil caused 100 percent mortality in several species of frogs. After being exposed to the fungicide at levels commensurate with what they would encounter in runoff, the amphibians died within 24 hours.