McDonald's prepares to switch its fries to a greener potato

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The greatest potato consumer in the U.S. is McDonalds (MCD), which buys 1.5 million tons of spuds every year to make french fries for the world. Of course, buying so much of a single commodity means McDonald's choices greatly affect the rest of the country -- and it makes the company an easy target for advocates of sustainable growing.

In March, McDonald's acceded to the wishes of shareholders who wanted it to develop best practices for reducing the pesticides used to process its potatoes. The term "best practices" tends to be slippery, but any actions by McDonald's will by definition have a massive impact on the food industry. With that in mind, the company is working with growers and food scientists to develop new strains of potatoes that will satisfy customers while supporting the environment.
For consumers who try to eat locally and avoid genetically modified foods, bioengineering a potato for McDonalds hits three fronts of the culinary war: factory farming, frankenveggies, and the dietary damages of fast food on society. But genetic engineering, and even large-scale agriculture, can have positive effects on society, too.

Right now, McDonald's top tuber is the Russet Burbank, a large white potato developed in the 1870s by horticulturalist Luther Burbank. The Russet Burbank is an expensive variety -- it consumes a great deal of water, takes a long time to mature, and requires large amounts of pesticides -- but it's easy to store and has a consistent texture and taste, which makes it the perfect french-fry potato.

McDonalds has augmented its Burbanks with a few other strains. In 1983, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada released the Shepody, a quick-maturing cultivar designed for Canada's brief growing season. Currently the top potato in Canada and the third-ranked potato in the U.S., the Shepody is well-suited for making fries but requires large amounts of pesticides and has a short shelf life. While it functions as a seasonal replacement for McDonald's, it's not suited to challenge the mighty Burbank. McDonald's also uses the Umatilla Russet and Ranger Russet cultivars to fill out its potato lineup. The Umatilla stores well, while the Ranger is late-blooming, which enables the company to get its fry supply through the winter.

Environmental responsibility is a developing concern for McDonalds, but it's only one of many factors in choosing a potato. Sugar level, cell size, and starch content all affect the fries' color, flavor, and quality. Russet Burbank potatoes are susceptible to sugar end, a condition in which excessive sugar collects in the ends of potatoes, resulting in unattractively dark fries due to caramelization during the frying process. While other breeds, like Umatilla Russets, don't have this problem, McDonalds has apparently decided that the sugar-end issue is more than balanced by the positive aspects of Burbank Russets.

McDonalds' next potato will have to run a careful balance, combining the perfect texture, color, and flavor with an environmental profile that will satisfy the chain, its investors, and its harshest critics. As researchers around the world work to develop the best of all possible taters, it's far from certain that fast food and bioengineering can create a potato that will please everyone at the table.

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