This is a follow-up to a previous blog about a pesticide reduction commitment that McDonalds has made and why that will be challenging in terms of their potato supplies and quality.
Roundup Ready® soybeans were commercialized in 1996 and quickly came to dominate plantings in the US, Argentina and Brazil. NewLeaf® insect resistant potatoes were also introduced that year. These potatoes were genetically engineered to produce the same Bt protein insecticide that was used as a spray-on product on potatoes and which was also approved for Organic use. The second generation of GMO potatoes was on its way around 1999, which also protected against the key potato leaf roll virus, which required spraying to control the aphids that spread the virus. Potato growers I interviewed at that time were excited about these technologies. Without having to spray for these two primary pests, biological control was largely taking care of the rest of their insect pest issues. They were also glad because they didn’t have to spend the money on most of their normal insecticide sprays.
This seemingly happy scenario came to an abrupt halt in 2000. Anti-GMO activism was starting to build and the leadership of McDonald’s got an arrogantly insufficient response from the leadership of Monsanto when they asked what was going to be done about the situation. McDonald’s defaulted to the “brand protection” mode and with three phone calls to the major frozen French fry suppliers, killed GMO potatoes in the US and Canada (Frito Lay and other brands joined in the defacto ban). That was only possible because increasing GMO potatoes was so much slower than increasing seeded crops and so only 5% of the crop was biotech. McDonald’s and all other fast food restaurants could never afford to ban the GMO ingredients that were in their frying oil or high fructose corn sweeteners because biotech adoption was so rapid for soy and corn. So McDonald’s still sells many products from GMO crops, just not potatoes because that would be much higher profile. There is absolutely no health risk issue here, but there is at least some irony.
Today, if McDonald’s wanted to make dramatic reductions in the pesticide use on the potatoes they buy without any danger to supply or quality, they could do so by asking their grower-suppliers to plant insect and virus resistant, GMO potatoes. There is also a GMO trait to control the Potato Tuber Moth, a new threat that early stages of global warming has allowed to over-winter in the Pacific North West for the first time (this requires sprays near harvest). There are GMO potato traits to allow potatoes to be stored colder so that chemicals are not needed to prevent sprouting and so that less intense pest control is necessary to prevent soft rot in long-term storage. There are also GMO potato traits to increase the starch content of the potato so that it absorbs less fat during frying. For a difficult-to-breed crop like potatoes, biotechnology could have been a great option.
Thirteen years and more than 2 billion acres of plantings of other GMO crops have shown that there are no human health or environmental problems from growing such crops. Reason would suggest that the best option McDonald’s could pursue to meet it’s pesticide reduction goals would be to encourage GMO adoption and use their considerable resources to make the case for why that is a safe and desirable thing to do. Reality says that such a courageous stand is extremely unlikely for an entity with such a valuable, consumer brand. My vote would be for courage (and yes, I’d like fries with that).
French Fry image by Sun Dazed