McDonald’s “Pesticide Conundrum” and the Solution it Will Probably Not Pursue (Part 2)

French Fries


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

  1. russ

    Kind of hard to have green cake and eat it too!

    The green movement is so broken up into bite and pieces that you can’t tell what people are really trying to do.

    To many off the wall types who scream the loudest manage to overrule a more common sense majority.

  2. Jess

    I would be interested to see the studies on GM potatoes that caused you to conclude that GMOs do not pose health or environmental risks.

    On the contrary, the article you linked in the last paragraph states that there has been insufficient testing and there is no scientific consensus on this issue, which has always been my understanding.

    Use of GMO potatoes is one way McDonald’s could handle the pesticide issue, but it is certainly not the only or the best way.

  3. Steve Savage

    There are studies, but at the scale of GMO commercialization world-wide, the “experiment” is global adoption of GMOs on 2 billion acres over 13 years. I don’t know what it would take to convince you that there is not a problem here. You say that using GMO potatoes is not “the only or the best way.” What is your alternative?

  4. Jess

    We had a similar “experiment” with corn-fed beef. We are now discovering the widespread health ramifications – far more than 13 years after the practice began. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that many people do not want to be in the test tube for these kinds of experiments.

    You argue that McDonald’s would have sufficient influence to cause their suppliers to plant GMO potatoes. Could not that influence be used to encourage suppliers to plant strains of non-GMO pest-resistant potatoes and begin moving towards organic farming methods?

  5. Jess

    As to the beef, I was referring to lower Omega 3 and Vitamin E, higher saturated fat content, all of which have (it can be argued are already having) unforeseen health ramifications in the long term. How long did it take us to discover the problems with DDT? I am not actually anti-GMO, but I don’t think a level of caution is unreasonable here. It can take a long time for us to identify causal relationships or even correlations with health and environmental issues.

    As to the carbon footprint issue, is it wise for carbon footprint to be the only metric by which we measure environmental impact? It seems that waste is going to break down and produce methane in a landfill or if it’s composted, so this is not a case of additional GHGs being produced as a result of composting. I definitely don’t know the science on that though, and could be very wrong…

  6. Jess

    It just occurred to me that this whole conversation has a touch of the absurd, as eating at McDonald’s is generally not good for one’s health or the environment, their use of GMO crops notwithstanding. 😛

  7. Steve Savage

    Jess, a varied diet will get around those some of those issues, but sadly not everyone eats that way. I’m sort of a carnivore, but I’m learning to use lentils and tofu more often. I indulge in the occasional order of fries. The problem is people who do that all the time.
    On the composting the best alternative is to use manure or food scraps or anything like that to generate clean energy in a methane digester. I like carbon footprint as a metric for ag because all the things you do to minimize that also reduce erosion and water pollution as well as energy consumption (no-till farming, precision ag…I’ve got earlier posts about that. Thanks for the thoughtful comments

  8. Es

    Are you crazy? GM foods have quadrupled the incidence of food allergies- do you really think it’s natural to eat a food that is resistant to pesticide??? Would you want your family and friends to eat this type of food ? Your article is grossly misinformed. Since genetically modified foods were introduced in our food supply, obesity, diabetes, food allergies and digestive cancers are on the rise at alarming rates. Studies were done on GMO corn proving that it caused infertility and smaller, unhealthier babies in mice. It is also causing stomach ulcers in cows being fed the stuff. . . Scientists warned the FDA of potential side effects- but I guess it was too profitable for them to care.

    I hope people aren’t reading this article and incorrectly assuming that GMO foods are safe to eat in the long-term.

    Just goes to show you can’t believe everything you read. Is McDonald’s giving you free coupons to write this kind of stuff or something???

  9. Caleb

    Thanks for the informed view of gmo potato. It would definitely make a lot of sense for MickeyDs to buy gmo if they want to see reductions in pesticide applications. The compositional analyses as well as toxicity and allergenicity analyses showed no significant differences between the gmo potato and the conventional russet burbank potato and no evidence for allergens/toxins. It’s funny how most people believe everything they read. Check out some published studies on this stuff and quit relying on websites that make ridiculous claims with no scientific backing.

  10. don

    there are numerous studies showing how dangerous gmo foods are.

    gmo foods should be abandoned as well as factory farming.

    money is what drives people these days.

    grow your own food. know your beef and chicken farmer. blow up monsanto.

  11. mike

    macdonalds dunkin donuts kfc and the other poison pushers should be illegal, its time for real change and time to help people become truly healthy

  12. Phuqinshot

    Monsanto, in its ignorance, is mucking with the very fabric of life……mutating, splicing, assembling new plant structures like a 4 year old child plays with Legos. Let’s use some common sense here:

    Monsanto has given us:
    Agent Orange (Blue, Black, and all the other colors)
    and now all the roundup sprayed genetically engineered vegetables we can eat.
    and god knows what else……

    Go ask the Indian farmers how well their Cotton (trademark Monsanto) is doing……well at least the ones that haven’t committed suicide yet because they can’t pay the seedmasters.

  13. Googus

    Mira Puñeta!!!!!
    si ustede sign jodiendo con los fokin gmo’s
    Te juro por mi fokin abuela que te voy a encontrar y te parto el culo carajo!!!!

    Y si no te lo dije, Cagate en tu fokin madre puñeta

  14. Bud Flux

    stating that there are no human health or environmental problems from GMO foods is a bold-faced lie. I could cite many studies that have shown that GMO’s are endocrine disruptors, cause liver and kidney damage and cause irreparable harm to the environment. do your homework before you report! my guess is that you work for monsanto and are green-washing their products.

  15. Steve Savage

    Bud Flux
    Wow, commenting on a 13 month old post. I’m glad I checked. There have been many reviews of the safety of GMO crops by qualified groups of scientists. They have rejected the small number of “agenda science” articles (usually in marginal journals) that show any health issues or environmental issues from GMO crops. We are 15 years into this and billions of acres. The link to food allergies is definitely not substantiated and absurd because with a GMO you know what potential allergens you change unlike traditional breeding that changes thousand of genes. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet!

  16. abermouse

    What about Monsanto and other biotech companies holding patents for their crops and owning all the food we eat and contamination of GM crops into the non-GM crops. I know this is about potatoes, but there are larger issues here. Also, from studies of GM potatoes, it made mice pretty sick according to some. Im not a gambler. Dont want that on my plate unless its labeled. Once foods are labeled I can sue if someone goes wrong. I’ll wait til then to eat something GM.

    1. Steve Savage

      plant patents are not new to GMO. Even universities will often patent new lines of crops that they bred. Patents serve the same purpose in plants as in any business – the ability to recover research investment for a time until the patent expires. Many of Monsanto’s GM related patents have already expired. No one “owns all the food we eat.” The only thing that comes even close is the share of the retail food market that is Walmart’s. Monsanto and its competitors all together are tiny compared to them.
      The GM potato study you are talking about was a strictly academic exercise where the scientist at a University in Scotland intentionally put a known animal toxin (a lectin) into potatoes. Big surprise, it was toxic to the mice. It was pointless. What was in the GMO potatoes was exactly the same protein that is sprayed on crops – a Bt crystal protein

      1. MSP


        Bacillus thuringiensis has been found to cause reproductive issues in humans and animals. More specifically, it affects the female species.
        “Doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found the corn’s Bt-toxin in the blood of pregnant women and their babies, as well as in non-pregnant women.i (Specifically, the toxin was identified in 93% of 30 pregnant women, 80% of umbilical blood in their babies, and 67% of 39 non-pregnant women.) The study has been accepted for publication in the peer reviewed journal”^1

        It POISONS rats and KILLS their liver cells. Causes other malformations and risks for disease.^2

        Indian Farmers who harvest BT cotton have rashes and inflammation and their animals (which include GOATS SHEEP and BUFFALO) get very ill and DIE after consuming hull, and seed of Bt cotton plants.^3

        1.Aris A, Leblanc S. Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. Reprod Toxicol (2011), doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2011.02.004

        2.Seralini GE, Cellier D, Spiroux de Vendomois J. 2007, “New analysis of a rat feeding study with a genetically modified maize reveals signs of hepatorenal toxicity”. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 2007;52:596-602; and Vendômois, JS, François Roullier, Dominique Cellier and Gilles-Eric Séralini. 2009, “A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health” . International Journal of Biological Sciences 2009; 5(7):706-726

        3.I.L. Bernstein et al, “Immune responses in farm workers after exposure to Bacillus thuringiensis pesticides,” Environmental Health Perspectives 107, no. 7(1999): 575–582.

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