Amy Mondloch & the Perfect French Fry
This week on Rootstock Radio, host Theresa Marquez speaks to Amy Mondloch, a coordinator at Toxic Taters—a coalition in the potato-growing areas of central and north central Minnesota. North central Minnesota is one of the areas which is highly affected by the pesticides being sprayed by the R.D. Offutt (RDO) potato company.
The cost of living in an area which grows potatoes in vast quantities isn’t just about money. Amy says that the people who live in the area of the RDO fields are being sprayed with pesticides by helicopter every week. Some people in the area are getting ill, the water is being contaminated throughout the United States, livestock is being affected and other crops (including organic crops) are also being hit with at least 35 different pesticides which are found on potatoes. Additionally, the growing of these potatoes requires over 13 billion gallons of water per year.
Potato companies go to such lengths to grow potatoes partially because they believe the consumer wants the “perfect potato.” However, Amy believes that if consumers knew what types of chemicals were going into their potatoes, they would opt for the healthier version over the perfectly smooth, beautiful potato. “We need to look at what our expectations are in terms of that perfect French fry,” she says.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Amy Mondloch, who is a coordinator at Toxic Taters and has been involved in community organizing in both volunteer and professional capacities for 25 years. Amy has also served as executive director for the Grassroots Leadership College, which provided training and leadership development in community organizing to more than 500 people and supporting more than 120 communities. Welcome, Amy.
AMY MONDLOCH: Thank you. I’m very excited about being on the program today.
TM: Well, you know, Amy, I don’t think there’s one food that people love talking more about than potatoes and French fries and tater tots and scalloped potatoes and hash browns and all the delicious ways of—did I say mashed potatoes?—that we so love potatoes. It’s probably more American than apple pie, in some ways. And so I’d like to know how you got involved with Toxic Taters. How did you get into this kind of bad side of potatoes?
AM: Well, for me, I got into it because I’ve been a community activist and organizer for 25 years, and I was looking for an opportunity to do some new work and was looking online for new opportunities and saw Toxic Taters. But for folks around here, in northern Minnesota, where we’re located, folks got involved because they live around the RD Offutt fields.
RD Offutt is the largest potato grower in the United States. And when you’re growing potatoes conventionally at the scale that RD Offutt is, you are spraying them with pesticides every week. And spraying them, you’re using helicopters. So they’re putting pesticides over these fields weekly, and those pesticides are drifting, sometimes over a mile. We found them actually over 10 miles away.
So folks were getting sprayed with chemicals every week and getting sick, and really found that they had no choice but to take some action against it. This has been happening since the mid-1960s. And back when it first started here in northern Minnesota, around Pine Point on the White Earth Indian Reservation, around Osage, just off the reservation, it was happening every year that there’s potatoes being planted year after year after year, and the water was being destroyed, the land was being destroyed, folks were getting sick.
After about 20 years, RDO was forced to take on some best-management practices, which meant moving to a three-year rotation for their potatoes—which was good in some ways, but it also meant major expansion. Now they operate in quite a few different counties here. They also have operations in, I believe it’s 12 different states. And that has impacted a whole lot of folks, meant a whole lot of people getting sick, a whole lot of people losing livestock, losing their trees, losing their places to live, because they just can’t live with that level of chemical infiltration in their lives. And they were forced to take action.
TM: Well, you know, I’m wondering, here in the—we’re one of the five Corn Belt states, and I think so is Minnesota. How have you been able to collect the information?
AM: We work a lot with the Pesticide Action Network. And what they do with us, or have done with us over the past years, is send us an air monitoring, which is a really simple scientific method to be out there and collecting these air samples. And we started doing that back in about 2006, and for a number of years had air monitoring systems set up around the fields and were collecting samples, and then were finding that we found one or more pesticides in about 66 percent of the air samples that we tested between 2006 and 2012. We’re not doing as much monitoring right now but continue to do some of that. And we’re still finding a lot of problematic things in those air samples.
We also know, from the USDA, that there are at least 35 pesticides that are found in potatoes. About 6 of those are known or probable carcinogens; 12 are hormone disruptors; 7 are neurotoxins; and 6 are developmental or reproductive toxins. So we know there’s some nasty stuff in there!
TM: I am shocked. I thought there was maybe 8 or 10, or maybe as high as 12, but 35! Probably a lot of our listeners don’t know that potatoes are one of the most heavily sprayed food products that we eat. And when I learned about this, which was many, many years ago, 20 or more years ago, I had to stop eating nonorganic potatoes. Thirty-five pesticides—why do potatoes need so many pesticides?
AM: Well, what’s happening with the potatoes is that they are dealing with a lot of different illnesses with the potatoes. And they’re also trying to make sure that we have the perfect potato. Fifty years ago, when you were growing potatoes, you could have bumpy potatoes. Now we need to have the perfect French fry—you know, you need to have that straight, even, white French fry. So you’re using a lot of pesticides.
You’re also using a whole lot of water. RDO, who just is one of the large potato companies in Minnesota, uses over 13 billion gallons of water a year so that we can have nice white even French fries, because lord knows we don’t want to eat bumpy French fries.
TM: Also, I’ve read, that fall over nicely over the edge in a perfect way. But that’s another issue too. You’ve talked about pollution of air, but of course now I see why northern Minnesota is such a great place to grow potatoes, if they have to use 13 billion gallons of water, because northern Minnesota is more water than it is land, isn’t it?
AM: We have a whole lot of water. We also have very sandy soil. So there’s a really, you know, it’s an easy space for the potatoes to grow. It’s also a place where the water is exchanging a lot. And one of the big problems that we have with potato growing here is that we have a lot of nitrates in people’s wells, which is a real problem for folks drinking their water. Nitrates in wells is particularly known for developing blue baby syndrome. People with high nitrates in their wells who have small children or pregnant women should not be drinking that water. There’s also questions about other folks drinking water with high nitrate levels.
And the other problem with the high nitrates is that it’s oftentimes a signal that there are other things in your well, and something that folks don’t know about. Nitrates are not something that you’re going to smell, or they’re not something that you’re going to say, “Oh, wow, I see something weird in my water. I should do something about this.” So folks aren’t always getting their water tested. But if they do get it tested, they’ll find out there’s something wrong. Then the next step is they have to get it tested for additional chemicals. And that gets to be more expensive, and it’s really difficult to get RDO or another potato company to pay for that testing.
TM: So not a lot of people there are aware of the situation and don’t test their water, is what I think I’m hearing you saying.
TM: And can you say, for our listeners, what is blue baby syndrome?
AM: Blue baby syndrome is a blood disease that is involved with small infants and can be really, really problematic and can eventually lead to death.
TM: And so, you know, there are probably other diseases, conditions, and so on, and problems, physically, that come from this kind of contamination in the air and in the water. But most people are not linking it probably to that—is that what I’m hearing too?
AM: It’s a difficult link at first. However, what we’ve seen in the last few years particularly is that folks are really making that connection. When I first got involved with Toxic Taters back in 2014, folks were really hesitant to take on RDO because it is such a huge corporation and it’s a huge employer in the area. Just a year later we were really starting to hear people say, “We’re sick of the pesticides,” because they were seeing people around them dying. I was just a few weeks ago talking with one of the elders in Pine Point, which is a very small community, about 200 people. And the reason that he got involved with Toxic Taters is because he had buried 17 other elders in the last year who had died of brain cancer—
TM: Oh my…
AM: —which, you know, when you have a town of 200-and-some people, and you have 17 people dying of brain cancer, there is definitely a problem.
TM: Well, I know that you have approached McDonald’s, which, such bravery on that one, but what a great strategy! And that McDonald’s has said that they’re going to reduce pesticides, which seems like it’s a win. What’s going on with that?
AM: Well, they said that they were going to reduce their pesticides back in 2009, and they have not moved. We have continued to push them. We are continuing, and we have invited Steve Easterbrook, their CEO, to come up here to take a look at what’s going on. We really are hopeful that we can reach into their humanity and give them a chance to look at what’s going on in these communities and get them to make a change. If RDO, if McDonald’s makes that change, we believe that they can really lead the industry. I think they are, you know, being the giant in the fast-food industry and being the largest potato producer in the country, that they can really lead the way, and this is a real opportunity for them, and we really hope that they will take that opportunity.
RDO has made some very small changes in what they’re doing, and we’re trying to get them to tell us some more details about those changes. They began using more cover crops, they’ve begun doing some more work on targeting how they’re using their pesticides. They’ve been reluctant at giving us the details. But we’ve been trying to meet with them and trying to get them to give us more of the details so that we’re able to say, “Hey, RDO is doing better,” but we’re several steps away from being able to say that yet. But we’re hopeful that they’ll move ahead.
TM: So, Amy, would you say that McDonald’s is probably the largest commercial user of potatoes? Or are there other big players there?
AM: I think McDonald’s is definitely one of the largest users. There are others out there. It’s difficult to say that McDonald’s is the one because potatoes are used in so many different ways.
TM: I’d like to go back, and you said something about, it isn’t just people getting sick but it’s livestock. I was on the site and apparently someone living near potato production lost quite a few of their animals. And I wondered if you could speak a little bit to the livestock problem.
AM: Yeah, what’s happening there is that livestock are getting hit directly. With people, when the spraying is happening, they have that choice of being able to leave right in that moment and at least not get the direct hit. But livestock don’t have that choice. So I think one of the stories that you may have seen is the story of Norma and Don, who were some of our founders. And they were sheep farmers, and what was happening was that their sheep were getting constantly hit, and eventually they had to go out of farming because all of their sheep were being poisoned. They weren’t able to lamb anymore. Their lambs would be born and would die afterwards, and when they cut the lambs open they saw that the livers were discolored, which is a sign of poisoning.
And that’s something that we see with other farmers as well, that they’re losing animals. And it’s just something that continues to happen. Other farmers lose other crops, because maybe they’re growing corn or maybe they’re growing another crop out there, and that’s getting sprayed more often than they would want it to be. Or we have organic farmers out here who are getting their crops sprayed and they lose their certification as organic farmers.
TM: Well, you know, I know a lot of our listeners are familiar with Roundup Ready, but, how shocking, there’s 34 more of them. And I’m just wondering, are some of these other pesticides commonly used or that our listeners might know about? But I’m assuming Roundup is one of them.
AM: Well, you’re looking at quite a list of fascinating chemicals on there, which I’m not going to go down the list for fear of destroying the pronunciation. But I will encourage folks to take a look at WhatsOnMyFood.org. It’s an impressive list that’s put together by the Pesticide Action Network that lays out what chemicals are being used, or a pretty good understanding of what chemicals are being used, that’s put together by the USDA. We don’t have a good or complete understanding of all of the brand names that are being put out there. One of the problems with potato growing here in Minnesota is that RDO and the other companies don’t have to tell us what they’re putting on the fields.
TM: Wow. That doesn’t seem correct, especially when the people who are living around those are being impacted. Isn’t there some kind of right that the public has for disclosure?
AM: One would think so, yeah, because we breathe it, we drink it, but we don’t get to know what is. They do report to the federal government, they do report to the states. However, if someone were to call and say, “Hey, we want to know what it is that’s being put on the field next door,” you will find out that that is considered private or nonpublic data.
TM: Well, are there laws in Minnesota, like there are in Wisconsin, that actually protect farmers? I’m just wondering whether it’s a policy issue or just in general a privacy of the potato grower, RDO.
AM: It is a policy issue right now, but we are working—I think that’s going to be one of our future issues, is to try to get that to be public. Because clearly, folks are breathing it, they’re drinking it, they should know what it is. The one time that you can sometimes find out what it is that has been sprayed is if you have been sprayed, and you’ve been made ill. So that comes, you know, the step too late. You want to know what it is before then. And in some of those cases, it’s still really difficult to find out what’s being put on there.
TM: For our listeners out there, if you’re just joining us, you are listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m honored to be here today with Amy Mondloch, coordinator of the Toxic Taters Coalition. Pesticide and fungicide drift is a serious issue in the potato-growing regions of central and north-central Minnesota, and Toxic Taters is working to increase awareness of the health effects of drift and decrease the use of these dangerous chemicals.
Just so that we can move to something maybe a little bit more hopeful, are there some sustainable models of potato production that could be a model?
AM: Yeah, I think there definitely are. I think that we do have some really strong, good potato growers here in Minnesota who are growing organically, who are really using a much more sustainable model, using cover crops, using natural forms of fertilizers. And I think we also have to look at what our expectations are in terms of that perfect French fry. And I think RDO and other big potato companies are really quick to blame the consumer for wanting the perfect French fry. And I think they have a responsibility and an ability there to be able to use their skills, as the salespeople, to look at how they sell what they do, and to really sell us that healthy food—not continue to sell that one perfect fry.
And I think folks are really ready to buy that healthy food. It’s clear, from looking at how folks are moving their consumer dollars, that they’re more interested in getting healthy options than they are in that perfect fry. And I think that RDO and McDonald’s and other companies can be jumping on that bandwagon a lot more effectively than what they are.
TM: You know, maybe we just need to start doing some kind of highly creative promotion for bumpy potatoes! I also want our listeners to know we have a couple of websites we’d love you to look at. One is WhatsOnMyFood.org from the Pesticide Action network, and the Toxic Taters website is www.toxictaters.org. And you can learn an awful lot about those favorite, lovely, delicious produce that you love—these potatoes. But never fear, we were just talking about how there are sustainable potato production and models. So what about the yields of sustainable and organic potatoes? Is there a chance we could be trying to transition some of that potato production to sustainable and organic?
AM: Sure, I think that we definitely can do that. I think it is up to the huge corporations like RDO to start to really start seriously moving their production to more sustainable process. I think we also need to ask ourselves, what is it economically costing us to be able to have the potatoes grown the way that they are? We’re right here in the headwaters of the Mississippi, and as they’re putting those pesticides on the fields every week—you know, flying over us with those helicopters, spraying those pesticides that are going into the water and going downriver—they’re poisoning the entire country. It’s costing us all a whole lot to have to be drinking those pesticides, and it’s going to continue costing us a whole lot as that continues to happen.
And we also have the local costs to it, whether it’s in the communities like Park Rapids, where the production plant is and where a lot of their helicopters fly out of. And the major user of the Park Rapids airport is RDO, and folks there are paying to subsidize what is almost a private airport. You know, those kinds of costs: what is it that we’re paying for, for them to be able to produce the potatoes the way that they are? And also asking the questions about, what is it costing us to be able to cover our health care, because folks are getting poisoned and getting sick and dying because of these pesticides. I think those lives are worth a whole lot more than those monocultures, and we need to be looking at it from those perspectives, I think.
TM: Wow, I’m so glad that you brought that up, because so many people don’t realize how the public is actually supporting the pesticide industry. In some ways, you know, they always say “follow the money.” The big winner here is the pesticide industry—is Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill, and all of those pesticide-intensive corporations who are really benefitting the most at our expense and our health. And it’s very much an issue. I’m sure you know the Danielle Nierenberg group, the Food Tank, but it’s definitely one of their issues all the time, and that is trying to put the true cost on what this kind of conventional model is, and how do we look at this in a more fair way.
But I’d love to get back to—I love the way that you’re trying to approach your activism, and that is, trying to figure out how to cooperate with these folks. What kind of strategies have you found work best, do you think, for just trying to get people to cooperate?
AM: Well, it’s always a challenge. We are, here, we are both a native and non-native group, which is first one of our challenges. We work in an area in which folks have not traditionally worked together. So it is first of all creating a space in which we get to listen to each other, get to hear each other’s issues, get to figure out how do we work together, what’s our common ground, what are our common goals, what do we share that can help each other out. So it’s us learning how to work together as an organization. And that’s important.
And then, I think, it’s also important for us to be able to be open-minded, to be able to be talking to the Department of Ag, to the DNR, to the Department of Health, to all the other agencies that we work with in the state. And some of those have been really some helpful conversations, and it’s also at the same time holding them accountable. So that’s a delicate balance: being able to be open and have those conversations, but being also able to say, “Hey, you need to do your job, and we’re just going to stop here.”
We had some really interesting time with them this past year. We were able to stop a major expansion of RDO. They were looking to get up to about 26,000 acres of forest land converted to potato fields in Minnesota; we got it down to about 500 acres.
TM: Well, congratulations on that. And I just want to say, to be someone dedicated to good food, for all of you listeners out there, if you want good food, we may all have to become activists. But what I’m so impressed with, Amy—and I just want to say you and all those around you who are working with you—first of all, 25 years as an activist is a congratulations, because what you’ve shown is that to be in activism and to care about the Good Food movement is to have a lifelong resolve, and also tenacity in just keeping at it and keeping at it. And so I just want to congratulate you for being a great model for all of us out there who really care about the food that we eat and also about the air we breathe and the water that we drink, and how important it is.
And today, you know, after seeing what’s going on at Standing Rock and trying to scratch our heads and wonder, goodness, how did they get there—maybe a lot of people don’t know that in mining areas where Native Americans have their reservations, some of them have up to 49 and 50 percent uranium poisoning. So these kinds of protests just don’t come out of the air—they really are based on some real issues around poisoning.
And then the other really important thing for everyone to know is that we have a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, created by the amount of nitrogen loading and pesticides that are coming all the way now, as I find out, from the very headwaters of the Mississippi. And that dead zone is bigger than the state, I think, of New Jersey, and growing. And now over 200 dead zones all over the ocean. So it’s a lot for us to care for the earth when we think about eating good food. It isn’t just an isolated event anymore. It’s truly related to how we treat the earth.
And I once again want to thank you so much, Amy for the great work you’re doing. And I’m so grateful for you and all those people up there with you who are willing to be tenacious and to speak the truth and just keep saying, “Well wait a minute, we’re the public, and don’t we have a right?”
AM: Well, I just have to say thank you to you and all the work that you are doing. I want to say meegwetch, thank you, to all the folks out at Standing Rock and all the work that they are doing, and to all the folks everywhere who are working to protect our water. I think that’s ultimately what it comes down to, that we need to be protecting our water and protecting our earth. That if we’re caring for those things and we’re looking to the generations ahead of us, making sure that we are caring for those generations, then we’re doing the right thing.
TM: Thank you, Amy Mondloch, working for clean water right there at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. And I look forward to talking with you again, Amy. Have a wonderful day.
AM: You too, thank you.