Fries with a Side of Health Concerns and Environmental Degradation: The Minnesota Potato Problem

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The Minnesota Environmental Partnership is proud to feature the following post as part of a series of columns as part of a Student Voices Series issues. This is part of a continuing collaboration with Macalester College’s Geography Department and its students.

Photo by Magnus Franklin: Flickr creative commons

Photo by Magnus Franklin: Flickr creative commons

As we rush by the McDonalds drive-thru to grab a side of fries, very few of us have the time to consider those potatoes. As we take the first delicious, greasy bite, we do not think about how they were grown, where they were grown, or by whom. Were we to investigate our potatoes’ pasts, they might start to taste a little bitter.  

Have you heard of R.D. Offutt? Not many of us have, and yet this extraordinarily profitable, private, international corporation run by mega millionaire Ron D. Offutt is greatly affecting our lives in the state of Minnesota. R.D. Offutt’s mass-production of potatoes in northern and central Minnesota is threatening human health and driving significant deforestation.

R.D. Offutt (RDO) routinely sprays toxic chemicals on their potato fields that reach homes and schools, putting nearby residents in danger. Just ask citizens of northern Minnesota, many of whom are forced to breathe in these chemicals. Toxic Taters, a local environmental justice campaign, interviewed Norma and Don Smith, farmers in Park Rapids who lost 29 sheep after RDO began spraying pesticides. When they cut one open, its liver coloration indicated it had been poisoned. The Huffington Post ran a story about Bonnie Wirtz, a new mother from Melrose who was hospitalized after a cloud of pesticides from an overhead crop duster restricted her breathing in a matter of minutes, almost throwing her into cardiac arrest. According to the local nurse practitioner, there are many more residents experiencing health problems because of the pesticides as well. RDO employees aren’t allowed to walk through the fields for three days after these chemicals are sprayed, and yet Minnesota Public Radio told the story of one family in Ottertail County who found a residual substance from pesticides sprayed by overhead crop-dusters covering their windows and their yard, including children’s toys left outside. Complaints escalated to a local hearing where the township board passed an ordinance limiting aerial application of pesticides. In response, RDO along with the state’s commercial pesticide applicators and the Department of Agriculture, the state agency supposedly responsible for pesticide regulation, sued the township. Ottertail County eventually lost the battle

The effects of airborne pesticides blowing beyond where they are sprayed (a phenomenon known as pesticide drift) have been long felt by Minnesota residents, but only recently has the pervasiveness of pesticide drift finally been measured. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), RDO’s fields are sprayed with fungicides as often as every five days. On windy days, these chemicals are essentially guaranteed to travel. From 2006-2009, PAN set up sensors in the yards of residents in north and central Minnesota.  Chlorothalonil, a fungicide used commonly on potato plants, was detected in 64% of the samples. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Chlorothalonil is a likely human carcinogen and highly toxic if inhaled.

In addition to the aerial encroachment of their pesticides, thousands of acres of Minnesota’s forests have already been converted to potato fields by RDO, and the company shows no signs of slowing down. According to a report in the Star Tribune, the corporation continues to purchase additional cleared commercial forestland from Potlatch, a large agroforestry company that owns land across the Midwest. The sandy soils in Minnesota’s Pinelands Sands Forestland are perfect for growing potatoes, but the intensification of agriculture up North has devastating consequences for the land and the water. In addition to the habitat loss due to deforestation, an increase in irrigation, as well as pesticide, fertilizer, and fungicide use is beginning to increase the toxicity of our aquifers and water supply. In Park Rapids, for example, the city is being forced to begin installing deeper wells and a $2 million treatment plan in response to increasingly dangerous levels of nitrogen in their water. 

While the scientific and anecdotal evidence clearly demonstrate the dangers of aerial pesticide spraying, and overdoses of agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides, there is little legislation to turn to for protection. The federal and state laws that govern pesticides for agriculture do not prevent aerial spraying near homes, lakeshores or towns. The Department of Natural resources is trying to gather funds to buy more land for protection and conservation purposes, and yet it’s funds are no match for RDO, an extraordinarily large and wealthy corporation which still receives government subsidies.

In response to this overwhelming threat, the marginalized communities of rural, white farmers and Native Americans living near RDO’s fields in northern Minnesota have united under the Toxic Taters Campaign.  This grassroots movement is currently raising awareness of the injustice surrounding pesticide drift and RDO’s large-scale deforestation, pressuring potato producers to adopt more sustainable practices and to agree to greater transparency regarding pesticide use. 

It is left to the consumer to petition, to lobby, and to fight for environmentally just potatoes. While many of RDO’s potatoes are manufactured into frozen products to be sold to schools and groceries, these pathways from producer to manufacturer to distributor are convoluted and hard to track. I worked as a researcher for the Toxic Taters network, trying for months to uncover the path of RDO’s potatoes from farm to table, and the few representatives from RDO and other food producers that I was actually able to contact as a concerned citizen told me they couldn’t disclose the information I sought, even about simple production pathways. Although they own countless equipment dealerships, large farms, and packaging plants in the U.S. and abroad, RDO is marketed as a small, private, “family” company, without any motivation to cater directly to the consumers of their produce. 

The clearest path to demanding change is through Minnesota McDonalds, where, according to Shawn Perich of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, most of RDO’s potatoes grown in Minnesota end up. McDonalds is a public company, and therefore more receptive of consumers. McDonalds also has the ability to substantially influence RDO’s farming practices. For example, The Wall Street Journal reports that RDO stopped growing genetically modified potato crops after McDonald’s customers rejected them, despite the fact that they were cheaper to grow.

We all have some power to wield against RDO. Be an informed customer. Express your concern about human and environmental health to McDonalds shareholders. Stop buying their potatoes until you are satisfied with their practices, and tell your friends not to either. Without looking at the larger picture, a small side of McDonalds fries appears to cost a mere $1.29. However, when we start weighing the whole cost factoring in human and environmental health, the price goes up. The Toxic Taters campaign found that nearly 50,000 acres of potatoes are being planted in Minnesota each year with more land being converted constantly. For the sake of our health and our environment in Minnesota, I urge you to demand more from your fries.

Rachel Lieberman is a Geography and Environmental Studies student at Macalester College. Last year she worked with Pesticide Action Network’s Toxic Tater’s campaign as a researcher, investigating the practices of R.D. Offutt.

2 Responses to “Fries with a Side of Health Concerns and Environmental Degradation: The Minnesota Potato Problem”

  1. Jim Johnson

    I have read articles before about the potato business in MN but we need Govt to be responsive to the people not Big Money

  2. Marvin Berman

    Congratulations to Rachel Lieberman for an excellently constructed essay. Environmental warnings whether they be dietary or air pollution related are very difficult for people to accept especially when it involves economic changes and sacrifices. As is often the case there is a void between the practical and the theoretic and we need to close that void.. How can environmental agencies work in a cooperative manner with companies like RDO and McDonalds rather than always taking a punitive stance,
    In other words, I love McDonalds fries but what can be done to grow the potatoes more environmentally friendly and economically feasible manner while still retaining the satisfaction of the pleasant eating experience??? that’s the conversation that needs to take place .
    Dr. Marvin Berman