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Creating the great American potato famine?

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted April 6, 2009

McDonald's just agreed to pursue pesticide-free potatoes for its restaurants. The anti-technology zealots pushing this organic move had better hope the company drags its feet—or we risk having the first McDonald's in history with no French fries. Less than a decade ago, the Danish government's high-level Bichel technical committee concluded that an organic-only mandate would cut Danish potato production by 80 percent.

As for the published claim that French fried spuds are "bathed in pesticides," give me a break. The pesticides—including the organic ones—are used on the plant's leaves, while the potatoes grow underground. There's absolutely no documented danger from conventionally raised potatoes.

We understand why McDonald's is retreating. The organic/hard-left/anti-corporate movement seems to be ruling the world right now. The Obama White House is planning an organic "First Lady" garden. Most important, non-profit institutional McDonald stockholders are threatening to stir investor turmoil.

Potatoes, however, are a uniquely important crop for the world, especially the world's poor. They produce more food value per acre than any other crop, even in short growing seasons. That's why cool Ireland got so potato-dependent that the famine starved one million people in the 1840s, and drove another 1.5 million refugees out of the country.

Unfortunately, potatoes are also particularly vulnerable to pests. Late blight is always a lurking disaster, and a more-aggressive new strain has recently presented itself in Europe. Organic farmers try to stave it off by dousing their fields with huge amounts of copper sulfate—which is highly toxic to virtually every mammal, bird and insect. The EU has tried to ban copper sulfate, but organic farmers say they can't survive without it.

Will McDonald's growers be allowed to use copper sulfate? If so, why substitute toxic pesticides for less dangerous ones?

Colorado potatoes beetles are another big threat, because they quickly develop resistance to most pesticides. Conventional growers have to keep constantly rotating their pest chemicals, though they still get close to 100 percent effectiveness. Staving off the beetles organically looks hopeless. The famous Bt toxin is only 50 percent effective—an invitation to crop collapse.

Home gardeners are virtually helpless against the blight and the beetles because they can't move their plantings far enough from last year's. For McDonald's, the demand to grow pesticide-free potatoes means the commercial growers concentrated near their frozen French-fry plants would be constantly at risk of losing their entire production. That would shut down the processing plants and leaving the fast-food restaurants with hamburgers sans fries. How will that affect the stockholders as customers flock to Burger King?

Ironically, there's already a biotech solution. Resistance to late blight was found many years ago in a wild relative of the domestic potato—but never successfully captured by cross-breeding. In 2003, BASF genetically engineered the resistance gene into a blight-resistant potato. However, they were denied permission for test-plantings in Ireland, where the memory of the potato famine should have made blight-resistant potatoes welcome.  The anti-technology activists reject biotech too. BASF has now suspended its blight-resistance efforts.  

Is there hope for the future? Can a world that will need twice as much food and feed in the next few decades afford to pander to the relatively few voices that demand low yield farming? Will the activists finally embrace biotech? Or, will all avenues of high productivity and high sustainability be denied those who must feed the world?

In the meantime, enjoy your fries while you can still get them. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.

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