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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

McDonald’s Meets McActivism: A nugget size protest

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Tuesday afternoon a small group Carleton and St. Olaf students stood outside the Northfield McDonald’s, holding signs that read, “END ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM” and “RURAL DESTRUCTION ONGOING.”

The protest was one of sixteen occurring across the state of Minnesota on October 28th as part of a campaign organized by Toxic Taters, a Minnesotan coalition pressuring McDonald’s to stop its use of pesticide-laden potatoes from RDO farms.

RDO, or Ronald D. Offutt, is the largest producer of potatoes in the world and McDonald’s main potato supplier. Local communities in northern and central Minnesota have accused RDO of releasing harmful pesticides and causing pesticide drift into their communities. The drift is purportedly affecting an Ojibwe tribe, The White Earth Nation, making the issue one of both potentially environmental harm and racism.

Toxic Taters is demanding that McDonald’s require RDO to (1) reduce pesticide use, (2) be fully transparent with regard to what chemicals it releases, (3) conduct a human and ecological health study on affected areas, and (4) adopt a third party to “ensure the transition to more sustainable practices.”

The coalition hopes to convince McDonald’s to use its purchasing power to force RDO to implement these goals.

They have chosen to target McDonald’s, according to Campaign Coordinator Amy Mondloch, because “McDonalds is a lot more visible than RDO is.”

“This is a good campaign because it’s marketable, it’s direct, people have heard of McDonald’s, people haven’t heard of RDO,” St. Olaf student Graham Glennon said.

Although McDonald’s announced in 2009 that it would take preliminary steps towards potato pesticide reduction, Toxic Taters argues it has made no significant changes in the past five years.

“It’s not really asking McDonald’s for much more than they’ve already pledged to do,” junior Robbie Emmett said, the Carleton organizer and point person for the campaign.

Despite poor weather, students gathered around 4 pm on the strip of grass and cement separating the McDonald’s from the cars barrelling down Highway 3. Carleton students were lackluster in attendance: though the group consisted of approximately seventeen, only five Carls were present, three of whom were affiliated with The Carletonian.

The action was slow to begin. Wind ripped some of the protester’s signs as they raised them in the air. One girl shouted to a customer driving past, “Don’t buy McDonald’s french fries!”

From the restaurant’s window, the store manager eyed the group, his cell phone pressed to his ear.

Three students volunteered to deliver a letter from Toxic Taters with the campaign’s demands to the manager, and somewhat sheepishly entered the McDonald’s.

They were immediately approached by the franchise’s general manager and a corporate business manager, who recommended they work up a different chain of command by visiting the McDonald’s brand trust website.

“We’re not the folks in leadership,” the business manager said, suggesting he had little ability to affect change in the larger corporation.

To this assertion, St. Olaf sophomore Udeepta Charnavaty later responded, “I totally understand their perspective and point of view.

At the same time, you saw the impact they had. Just eleven kids standing on the sidewalk. They kind of panicked… If this is happening at multiple franchises, I’m pretty sure they’ve talked with their higher ups already.”

The general manager also read McDonald’s official statement on the RDO matter, which stated that Mcdonald’s “remains committed to taking steps towards reducing pesticide use in potatoes” and that the company has “already seen progress toward a more diligent approach.”

Toxic Taters publicly disagrees with this statement, citing drift catching data from a 2012 Minnesota Pesticide Action Network (MPAN) study that reports detection of several chemicals, including a common potato crop fungicide known as chlorothalonil, in affected communities.

The MPAN study, however, was conducted between June 2006 and August 2009, and McDonald’s only agreed to reduce pesticides in its potato crops in March of 2009.

“Probably McDonald’s is not aware of what’s happening. RDO is a big company and it has the ability to restrict information that’s being transmitted,” said Charnavaty.

As to why McDonald’s should care about the issue–which is arguably affecting a very small percentage of their customer base–Emmet cited public relations concerns. “In Minnesota at least, there is the potential for them to lose credibility.”

The multi-billion dollar corporation has also clearly made “healthy” and environmentally friendly food a P.R. priority.

“Mcdonald’s has been marketing themselves recently as much more sustainable, since that’s a niche market that’s growing right now and that has a lot of potential for marketing purpose,” said Glennon.

Notably, CEO Don Thompson spoke at the U.N. 2014 Climate Summit last month about McDonald’s sustainable beef program. While at the summit, the company also signed a pledge committing to combatting global deforestation.

According to Emmett, “RDO is actually growing potatoes sustainably around the country, so it’s something that can copied here pretty easily. McDonald’s would be able to add that to their sustainability action items and their priorities, and that would make them look good.”

McDonald’s, however, is not the only consumer of RDO potatoes, and the customers eating at the franchise store on Tuesday not the only customers implicated in supporting harmful pesticide use.

The St. Olaf Bon Appetit board manager, Randy Clay, has checked the dining services’ potato boxes and reported that some–though not all– are from RDO.

“RDO right now is supplying potatoes for Bon Appetit,” said Glennon. “The same potatoes that are being sprayed with pesticides that are drifting onto an American Indian Reservation are in the potatoes we’re eating in our tater tots and our fries.”

As to whether Carleton Bon Appetit supplies from RDO, General Manager Katie McKenna gave the following statement:

“We definitely prefer to support farms that do not abuse pesticides or herbicides. (Bon Appétit is a proud partner with the Pesticide Action Network in the Equitable Food Initiative.) As you know, RDO is the largest potato aggregator in America so it is likely that our potatoes come from one of its subsidiaries or suppliers. We will look into this matter and see if there is a way we can apply pressure constructively.”

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