Pesticides, people and potatoes

“Most folks involved would love to not be doing this. They want to do the other parts of their lives but they don’t feel they have a choice. They have to protect the places they live and their families.” Amy Mondloch is clear about the importance of the work of Toxic Taters, an organization based in the central and north central parts of Minnesota – the heart of potato-growing country.

“[Most volunteers] got started because they live around potato fields. They weren’t environmentalists, but they got tired of being sick,” Mondloch says. Toxic Taters is calling attention to and working for change around the pesticides used in growing potatoes, specifically by R.D. Offutt Company (RDO), based in that area, and the largest potato grower in the world.

Efforts on this have been going on since the 1990s, but it was around 2006 when they connected with the Pesticide Action Network, which sent staff to help in doing citizen monitoring of pesticide drift. Over a period of several years they found pesticides in 66 percent of their air samples, up to as far as 10 miles away. In 2014, they organized as Toxic Taters and hired Mondloch as their first staff person, a big supplement to the group of volunteers. They had already been meeting with RDO and putting pressure on McDonald’s, who has RDO as one of their major suppliers, to stop using potatoes with pesticides.

In addition to the protests and petitons, volunteers staff educational tables at fairs and pow wows, work to hold government agencies accountable for mandates and make sure their voices are heard in the government.

One of those volunteers is Bev St. John, who grew on up a Wisconsin farm and lives on the White Earth Reservation, surrounded by potato fields. She and many others in her family have leukemia, which she attributes to pesticides. This issue brought her to “petitioning for the first time in my life, at 65, on a picket line,” she says, when she protested and gathered names on a petition at local McDonald’s restaurants. McDonald’s gets most of its potatoes for french fries from RDO. She found that most of the people who signed the petition were young or had not been born and raised in the area. Potato farming is a big part of the local economy, with many families’ livelihood depending on the dollars it brings into the area.

They aren’t asking RDO to go away, but they are asking them to farm without chemicals as other potato operations have done. They want them to do better.

Yet St. John has hope. “Some day non-native people will realize they are in the same boat. Those potatoes are being eaten by non-natives too. They will realize it is their kids who are suffering, too.” She explains that on the reservation, “the water is tainted. We can’t stop drinking. Chemicals are in our air. What are we supposed to do, stop breathing?”

Toxic Taters recognizes that natives and non-natives are involved and are affected. Their newsletter has a regular column, “Working Together.”

“My world view is different from the non-native world view. It is not wrong, just different and just as valid,” St. John says. “Even though we see things differently, we can do things together.”

Take action or learn more:
Toxic Taters
Pesticide Action Network panna.org
What’s in my Food database 
The Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list of most common fruits and vegetables that are contaminated. For example, tests are done by USDA and FDA after foods have been washed and in some cases peeled. tinyurl.com/mwp-ewg-dirtydozen