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Lex Horan

Message delivered: No more toxic ‘taters

McDonald’s held its annual general meeting (AGM) last Thursday. If shareholders wanted a quiet meeting, they sure didn't get it! The company’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, was packed: 2,000 fast-food workers, clergy, parents and food system activists poured into town with a thing or two to say to McDonald’s.

The Minnesota-based Toxic Taters Coalition — a longtime partner of PAN — was one of several groups with a message to deliver to the fast-food giant. Toxic Taters delivered a petition with more than 20,000 signatures, calling on McDonald’s to cut pesticide use on potatoes, work with a third party certifier to transition to sustainable practices, increase transparency about pesticide use and fund a public health study in areas impacted by potato production.

In the midst of campaigns calling for a living wage, the right to organize in the workplace and a halt to McDonald’s advertising to kids, the Toxic Taters Coalition adds an important piece of the story. As McDonald’s is challenged by the public to step up on multiple fronts, the company is leaning heavily on messaging about sustainability to buoy its brand.

While Toxic Taters has high hopes about McDonald’s capacity to shift the market, we’re also here to remind the public that McDonald’s has to make good on past promises if it hopes to earn credibility. 

Potatoes missing in the mix

In late April, McDonald’s released a new Corporate Social Responsibility plan, largely focused on environmental sustainability. The plan was full of forward-looking goals to “green” McDonald’s practices in areas like waste management, energy efficiency and water conservation. In the area of sustainable sourcing, the report focused on McDonald’s recent high-profile commitment to source sustainable beef, in addition to coffee, fish, palm oil and fiber-based packaging.

So far so good. But while McDonald’s is setting elaborate goals for the future, shouldn’t the company also make good on old promises?

In 2009, McDonald’s pledged to work towards fewer pesticides on their potatoes. Five years later, communities near RDO potato fields are still waiting for real change on the ground. So where are the 'taters in the sustainability plan?

Potatoes did earn a brief mention in the report, which reiterated that the company has required its potato producers to take a survey on pesticide, fertilizer and water usage. But for communities in potato producing areas, a survey is just the beginning. How is McDonald’s using survey data to increase adoption of sound IPM practices and reduced pesticide use among growers? And how will McDonald’s ensure progress across the board, from all of its potato producers?

Hopes and “aspirations”

McDonald's makes clear that its corporate social responsibility goals are “aspirational.” Though at first I wasn't sure what this meant, I didn't have to go more than a few pages into the report for the corporation's explanation:

“As a brand we realize that it will be difficult to measure progress in all the countries where we operate, but will strive to motivate the entire System by providing tools and resources to drive engagement and performance across our System. Progress toward the aspirational goals will be aggregated and reported in our annual sustainability report, but market-by-market progress may vary.”

While I hear good intentions loud and clear in this statement, I can also spot a few Big Mac-sized loopholes. Unfortunately for the public, “aspirational” pledges are hard to hold onto. McDonald’s will be largely measuring its own progress, without many public mechanisms for accountability along the way.

For the Toxic Taters Campaign, this is familiar territory: McDonald’s infuses resources and PR dollars into the rollout of a sustainability plan, leading to a flurry of media coverage. But when the media moment has faded, the public is left with little more than crisp infographics and bold pledges. This was certainly the story with McDonald’s potato pesticides promise in 2009; I hope it doesn’t come true again with this year’s sustainability plan.

Expecting something better

If last week’s mobilizations in Oak Brook showed me anything, it’s that McDonald’s has a great deal of power within its sector, and all kinds of people — low-wage workers, moms, health professionals and our own Toxic Taters coalition — expect the company to use that power responsibly.

In a recent Twitter chat to roll out its sustainability goals, McDonald’s said: “Our size & scope make our sustainability efforts unique: We can help mainstream sustainability. ‪” The Toxic Taters Coalition couldn’t agree more. McDonald’s has the power to shift the whole supply chain for potatoes, which could mean cleaner air and water for rural communities.

But mainstreaming sustainability can’t mean watering it down. McDonald’s will need to partner with third party experts to verify their progress — and commit to full transparency about progress and challenges. Most importantly, impacted communities must be at the table along the way.

Toxic Taters hits the road

The excitement in Oak Brook is over, but here in Minnesota the Toxic Taters Coalition is keeping busy. Members of the Coalition who live near large-scale potato production are traveling the state this summer, telling their stories and building support for the campaign. In June and July, the Toxic Taters speaking tour will make stops in Minneapolis, Bemidji and Duluth. 

Minnesota residents aren't the only ones who have the chance to learn more about the costs of chemical-intensive potato production. The Toxic Taters Coalition has extended an invitation to decisionmakers at McDonald’s to come to the table, listen to their stories and respond to last week's petition. I hope McDonald's takes them up on it.

Get engaged » Find out the latest news from the Toxic Taters Coalition by joining them on Facebook and Twitter. And if you live in Minnesota, be sure to join them on their speaking tour!


Photo credit: iStock/71gazza

Picture of Lex Horan

Lex Horan

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