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Pressed by a group of its shareholders—a college endowment fund, an investment company, and a labor union—McDonald’s Corporation agreed to take measures to encourage its potato suppliers to reduce their pesticide use.

The agreement makes no mention of other suppliers to McDonald’s, such as sliced-apple producers, and tree fruit industry representatives say growers have been proactive in terms of sustainability.

Bill Dodd, director of the Ohio Apple Marketing Program, said farmers are the very definition of sustainability and stewardship. "A lot of the things that the buyers are requesting, we’re already doing."

For example, Dodd said his grower members have been following an integrated pest management program for 19 years, and no one required them to do that. Growers don’t have a problem with adopting sustainable practices as long as they’re based on science, rather than emotion, he added.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, believes that buyer requirements are a growing trend in the produce industry. "I think you’re going to see more of that," he said.

He expects to see greater concern from buyers about the social aspects of fruit production, such as how the workers are treated, but he believes that Stemilt’s current practices should meet buyers’ stipulations.

Agreement

The shareholders who forged the agreement with McDonald’s were Bard College’s Committee on Investor Responsibility in New York; Newground Social Investment in Seattle, Washington; and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations Reserve Fund.

In a shareholder resolution, they stated: "Pesticides impose a heavy burden on farmworkers, adjacent communities, and the environment. Reducing pesticide use can reduce these burdens and production costs. Reduced pesticide use can also yield reputational benefits, since McDonald’s markets heavily to children and their parents, and children are especially vulnerable to pesticides."

Under the agreement, McDonald’s will survey potato growers on pesticide use and post the findings on a corporate social responsibility (CSR) Web site; collect examples of best practices for pesticide use reduction on potatoes; encourage all its suppliers to adopt the best practices; and highlight sustainable pesticide use in a CSR report.

Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, noted that Washington apple growers have been at the forefront of the move to integrated pest management practices. They want to use chemicals responsibly and reduce use, where possible. He does not think entities unfamiliar with agriculture or individual buyers should stipulate how the fruit is grown.

"We don’t want McDonald’s or WalMart or Safeway dictating agricultural practices at the farm. It should be the U.S. government. It should be the industry itself," he suggested. "If there’s some practice that’s happening that should not happen, it should be legislated or regulated so that everybody is playing by the same sort of rules."

Schlect said the problem with sustainability is that the word is imprecise and difficult to define. For some consumer or activist groups, sustainability covers not just chemical use, but labor and ecological issues, whereas a company might regard sustainability as the ability to remain in business.