On April 1st the Los Angeles District of the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tackled a host of controversial issues at their 1st annual conference. I spoke of work consulting for McDonald’s owners of Southern California (MOASC).
During the discussion I was asked what it will take to get McDonald’s to step up and influence the conventional industrial farming model. I will regret my heartfelt “I don’t know” for years, mostly because I woke up this morning with a few ideas, especially after listening to Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, a dietitian from Missouri and host of KOPN Food Sleuth Investigative Nutrition.
Melinda spoke to the harms of genetically engineered (GE) food. She outlined a range of concerns regarding conventional agriculture, specifically targeting the advent of GE crops that withstand application of glyphosate. Proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) like to point to saving the papaya industry in Hawaii and other minor wins, but rarely acknowledge the ever increasing use of pesticides and other industrial chemicals to grow the vast majority of GE crops (ie: soy and corn).
Brought to market by Monsanto in the mid 1990’s, GE soy and corn were developed to withstand application of herbicides containing glyphosate. Today, scientists measure glyphosate, the primary ingredient in the herbicide RoundUp, in soil, in water, and in the air. It is measured in blood and breast milk. Scientists measure residues in our food.
Registered as an antimicrobial agent, glyphosate harms soil ecology and likely our own microbiome. As a chelating agent, glyphosate compromises mineral transport. GE corn and soy is also linked with the collapse of wild bee populations, the kind of pollinators critical to growing food and sustaining ecosystems.
Most GMO seeds are coated with neonicotinoids. Melinda flashed a map of glyphosate use and then a map depicting distressed wild bee populations with the two maps showing an uncanny resemblance to each other. The same map of the Mississippi watershed also reveals the environmental disaster that occurs every spring when rains flush fertilizers and other chemicals down stream, polluting the waterways and creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: IS THE TIME RIGHT FOR MCDONALD’S TO STEP UP (Again)
Most conventional farmers care deeply about their land. They care about the soil, water flow, organic matter, and state that they are trying to use as little pesticide as possible. But is that enough? More critically, can major players (like McDonald’s) use their influence to dramatically impact the use of pesticides and other industrial chemicals?
Interesting, McDonald’s is not new to this game. Over the years I worked with MOASC, I learned first hand how the corporation cultivates deep relationships with their suppliers and works with suppliers to do good.
- Since 1991 McDonald’s works with Temple Grandin, PhD to address animal welfare issues. Dr. Grandin claims animal scientists had tried to change industry standards for over a decade without success. Once McDonald’s adopted her recommendations and informed their suppliers to comply or else, the industry changed within three months.
- In 1993 McDonald’s provided expertise to address food safety issues at Jack in the Box, despite that fact that the issue involved a competitor.
- McDonald’s invested in mapping the oceans and assessing the health and sustainability of fish stock around the globe for everyone’s benefit. In 2013 they earned the right to use the Marine Stewardship Council blue label for all their fish entrees.
- McDonald’s research determined cage free was a better option than traditional caging of laying hens and in 2015 outlined plans to shift to 100% cage free eggs in 2017.
- As of 2016 McDonald’s serves chicken raised without antibiotics important for treating human illness. PEW research’s Antibiotic Resistance Project applauded the move, noting that when McDonald’s changes, they change the world.
WHAT’S NEEDS TO CHANGE NOW?
Despite growing efforts to implement more conservative practices such as no till and introducing cover crops by some farmers, current industrial agriculture continues to decrease soil fertility and compromise soil ecology. Current practices contribute to poor water flow, impaired drought resistance, and erosion, as well as loss of biodiversity. The increasing use of pesticides on genetically engineered crops compromise us all, from farm workers to pollinators to eaters.
Conventional agriculture contributes mightily to carbon emissions and climate change. However, the solution to excessive carbon in the air may lie in agriculture’s capacity to sequester carbon in the soil.
Dr. Richard Teague of University of Texas in Austin demonstrates exactly how that can work. In a 2016 research editorial he calculates that shifting current agricultural operations to more regenerative practices has the potential to “facilitate provision of essential ecosystem services, increase soil carbon (C) sequestration, and reduce environmental damage.” Ironically grazing animals can profoundly reduce environmental damage, far more than any effort to reduce intake of red meat.
In other research, Adam Davis showed that a different rotation of crops could reduce use of pesticides and fossil fuels by as much as 85% with no extra cost. We know good solutions exist, and it doesn’t stop with buying organic. While growing food organically addressing a piece of the problem, regenerative agriculture embraces the core challenge: soil health. The question remains, “Who will lead?
WHO WILL LEAD?
Could McDonald’s lead? Many conventional farmers already adopt no till practices and plant cover crops to enhance soil health. I spoken to a few who share concerns for soil ecology, air pollution, water contamination, and impact of industrial chemicals. However, those concerns have not stemmed the use of industrial chemicals that threaten all living organisms, from extensive use of petroleum based fertilizers and increasing use of pesticides and other endocrine disruptors.
As I pondered what will it might take for McDonald’s to impact how we grow food, I realized that the right people need access to McDonald’s executives, just like Temple Grandin before them. Have they already bought in people who understand how to help farmers transition from industrial chemical farming to more regenerative practices, practices that aim to restore soil ecology and reduce the use of problematic industrial chemicals? If not, they could tap into Ray Archuleta of USDA, maybe Gabe Brown, Allan Savory and Bill and/or Nicolette (Hahn) Niman, just a few names among many champions of regenerative agriculture.
Consumers can do their part as well. Talk to local McDonald’s owners and share your concerns. How we grow our food matters
It’s been said that when McDonald’s changes, they change the world. Could McDonald’s make a difference again? I know they have the relationships with suppliers to make it work. The question remains, do they have the vision and will?
Bonnie Y. Modugno, MS, RD consulted for McDonald’s Owners of Southern California from 1992-2016. As with every blog, all thoughts and opinions are my own.