What do you call it when the nation’s largest potato company, with strong ties to the pesticide industry, digs in its deep pockets to dodge accountability for its impacts on local communities? Here at PAN we call it “corporate capture” — the outsize influence that pesticide companies and other corporate powerholders in our food system have over the agencies that are meant to regulate them.
Recently in Minnesota I’ve been watching potato giant RD Offutt (RDO) resort to a number of the most common moves from the corporate capture playbook. But I'm happy to report that I've also seen a determined coalition of community members stand up to RDO and our state agencies, calling for stronger protections from chemical-intensive agriculture.
An agency, a corporation...
I’ve written before about Toxic Taters, a grassroots organization led by rural and Native residents of north central Minnesota who are fed up with health-harming pesticide drift from nearby potato fields. PAN has worked closely with community members in the area since 2006. It’s a bold campaign taking on two giants of the food system: RD Offutt, the nation’s largest potato grower, and McDonald’s, who buys potatoes from RDO to make its “world famous fries.” Now RDO is aiming to expand its chemical-intensive potato fields — and local communities are fighting back.
Watching RDO’s attempted expansion unfold in the last year has been a little like watching a high-stakes tennis match. The back-and-forth has looked like this:
A few years back, RDO started buying up thousands of acres of pine forest, formerly owned by a timber company, to expand its potato fields. New land in hand, the company requested irrigation permits for the potato fields it intended to plant there.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) gets to decide who receives irrigation permits and when — and usually gives them out when asked. But last winter, MDNR was looking at a stack of 54 irrigation permit requests from RDO, connected to a whopping 7,000 acres of forestland that would be cleared for potato production. At that time, MDNR did the right thing. The agency stepped up and called for RDO to do an environmental assessment on the impacts of its “pine-to-potatoes” project before proceeding.
The environmental assessment worksheet the agency called for is a small ask for a company poised to use a great deal of a public resource — our state’s groundwater — for its private gain. Any project that has “potential for significant environmental effects” merits an environmental assessment, according to state law. Aren't seven thousand acres of new potato fields, and the pesticide applications that go with them a significant environmental impact? And communities near existing potato fields are already spending $2.5 million in taxpayer dollars to clean up drinking water. That sounds like significant environmental impact, too.
But RDO disagreed. The company sued MDNR, and the many months of legal back-and-forth followed.
The resolution was a signed memorandum of understanding between the company and MDNR, the agency responsible for regulating them. RDO agreed to drop most of its irrigation permit requests, leaving only five on the table. (Though, no promises that the company wouldn’t slowly trickle in irrigation permit requests over the course of the next few years.) And MDNR would no longer require an environmental assessment. Together, the company and the agency would approach the Minnesota legislature to ask for taxpayer money to fund a study of the impacts of potato production.
...and the rest of us
If you’re keeping track, there’s one character who hasn’t shown up in this story yet: the rural residents whose communities, drinking water and air would be impacted by RDO’s new potato fields.
MDNR lost the backbone to require the corporation to do an environmental assessment, but PAN and local community groups didn’t. Toxic Taters took the lead on a petition to MDNR calling for an environmental assessment, with support from Land Stewardship Project, White Earth Land Recovery Project, and PAN. Local residents and other Minnesotans signed the petition in support.
Shortly before MDNR was due to decide on our petition, the agency invited us to sit down at the negotiating table with RDO and MDNR. The goal was to see if we could come to some agreement about the “special study” that MDNR and RDO had already agreed to.
We accepted the invitation and sat at the table with RDO and MDNR, sharing our concerns about the study as currently proposed — and offering suggestions for how it might be improved. We weren’t convinced that a “special study” could replace a full environmental review process, but we stayed in the conversation.
We stayed until last week, two meetings in, when RDO left the negotiating table. At that point, the ball was in MDNR’s court. The agency rejected our petition for an environmental assessment, after RDO pulled its requests for two more irrigation permits.
Where the potato giant had originally requested 54 permits, now they have only three irrigation well requests approved or pending. It’s a mixed victory: public pressure made sure that 51 well permits were withdrawn, but RDO has still managed to avoid a public review and full environmental assessment of its proposed expansion.
No small potatoes — big picture problems
How did PAN end up in a tussle with the largest potato grower in the country and a Minnesota regulatory agency? Why does this issue matter so much?
First, it’s high time to transition away from pesticide-intensive agriculture — and RD Offutt’s potato production is about as pesticide-heavy as it gets. If the company is sincere about working to cut pesticide use, we’re all for it. But sound public policy should aim to prevent the harms of pesticide contamination before they occur, and an environmental assessment is an important public tool to do that.
And when harm has already occurred — like on thousands of acres in Minnesota and on the White Earth Indian Reservation where RDO’s potato operations have already contaminated air, water and communities with hazardous pesticides — the company’s first responsibility should be remediating harms before planting new fields.
Second, public agencies should serve the public. Federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state agencies like MDNR, work for us. Their responsibility is to protect public resources and public health. But unfortunately they’re under a tremendous amount of pressure from major corporations to set policy and enforce regulations to the benefit of corporate players in our food system. As we’ve said time and again, we need to remind public agencies loudly and clearly that they work for us, not the pesticide industry and other corporate actors.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the communities that are most affected by regulatory decisions and agricultural practices need to be at the center of decision-making. Without frontline communities at the table, the solutions that governments and corporations propose will always miss the mark.
Rural Minnesotans are calling on state agencies to protect their basic rights to clean air, clean drinking water, and decision-making in their communities. Regulatory agencies need to listen.
Photo: David Wright | Flickr