Companies with prominent, valuable, consumer “brands” are prime targets for activists because these entities cannot afford to ignore threats that might hurt their public image. Remember Nike and the foreign “sweat shop” issue. Consumer brands don’t get much bigger or more valuable than that of McDonald’s. To its credit, based on outside pressure or not, McDonald’s has provided leadership on nutritional, packaging and animal wellness issues over the years.
Recently, McDonald’s has come under lawsuit pressure from a number of groups over the issue of pesticide use on potatoes – one of the signature offerings of this chain. They had to agree to work to reduce those applications. It would be best to focus on reductions of the pesticides with the greater associated risks, but unfortunately the litigants probably don’t understand that there are huge differences between pesticides.
There are actually a lot of pesticides used on potatoes compared to other crops grown at that scale. One of the main reasons is that it is incredibly difficult to breed new potato cultivars. I’ve blogged about the difficulties of improving a non-hybrid crop like wheat, but that is nothing in comparison to potatoes. First of all, it is not a seeded crop. It is actually a “cloned” crop grown from “seed pieces” and it grows from the “eyes” that occasionally sprout in your pantry. It is possible to breed via the flowers and seed, but it is very slow. Potato cultivars that are 20 to more than 100 years old dominate the industry. Breeding in pest resistance isn’t really an option.
Unfortunately, potatoes also have some really troublesome pests. The Colorado Potato Beetle can eat all the foliage of a potato crop in short order if not controlled, and it is notorious for becoming resistant to pesticides. Potatoes are also afflicted with a variety of virus diseases spread by aphids. By themselves, the aphids don’t hurt the crop too much, but the viruses they spread greatly reduce the yield and quality of the crop. Potatoes are also susceptible to a devastating disease called “late blight” which, when it finally made its way to Europe hundreds of years after the Andean mountain crop did, it caused the Irish Potato Famine. That same disease still plagues potatoes wherever they are grown. Many potatoes are stored for many months so that processing plants can be used efficiently. It takes more pesticide use to grow the potatoes to be pest-damage-free enough to be stored that long.
Potatoes have a lot of problems that require pest control chemicals. Groups that have threatened to damage McDonald’s brand have forced them to agree to put pressure on their potato suppliers to reduce pesticide use. How can they satisfy the activist groups without threatening the viability of their supply chain? This is McDonald’s pesticide conundrum. They absolutely need pesticides to be used to generate the quantity and quality of potatoes they must have. They have a threat to their brand that has forced them to promise pesticide reductions. What can they do? See part two of this blog.
Colorado Potato Beetle image from Zanastardust