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Group wants action on pesticides

Concern over the ill-effects of pesticide use on area farms may not be a new one, but the latest efforts of a local citizen group determined to fight it seems to be.

The Toxic Taters Coalition is a recently named organization consisting of a native group from White Earth, as well as a group called Minnesotans for Pesticides Awareness, backed by the non-profit group, Minnesota Pesticide Action Network based out of the Twin Cities.

For over a year these organizations have been trying to convince legislators, independent farmers and the EPA to reduce toxic pesticide usage on Minnesota farms, particularly potato farms as they believe those are the most frequently sprayed fields.

“But very little has changed,” said Bob Shimek, who heads up the group, “and we’re getting sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Sick and tired is exactly what some area residents around west central Minnesota say they are after they claim pesticide drift from the fields aren’t just killing insect pests, but are also killing them.

“We have documented the pesticide drift and have shown the community is being exposed to pesticide from the air on a regular basis and that it is a health concern in this region,” said Linda Wells, a spokesman for the Pesticide Action Network.

Wells says the number of residents coming forward with concerns from around Minnesota is growing, and they can’t afford to wait for government red tape or hold their breath in the hopes that growers will voluntarily change.

“I think we’ve got a broken regulatory system, and the problem is that the Department of Agriculture says they can’t do anything until the EPA implements change, which they’re looking at doing, but it will take them up to 10 years to put new regulations in place,” said Wells, “so in the meantime you’ve got this community that’s being exposed every summer, and they don’t want to wait 10 years for the laws to change.”

Both Wells and Shimek say their organizations have tried talking to anybody who they believe could help in their plight, including top management at RDO/Lamb-Weston out of Park Rapids (one of North America’s top potato producers) and McDonalds restaurant chain (a big customer for RDO).

“But RDO points the fingers at McDonalds and

McDonalds points the fingers back at RDO, which is getting us nowhere, so now we’re pointing the fingers at both of them and we’re going to take action,” said Shimek, whose group is readying themselves for a couple of events they hope will draw attention to the cause.

The first is an informational meeting being held in Fargo at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 121 9th Street this Tuesday from 6-9 p.m.

Although Toxic Taters Coalition has typically been fighting for change in the west central Minnesota region, Shimek says they wanted to be in Fargo because the entire Red River Valley is affected by the issue, and they intend to spread information and rally the troops where they are needed.

Another objective for the group as they expand into Fargo is to get more people to join them as they say they fully intend on protesting the dedication festivities at the new Concordia College Offutt School of Business. (Named after Ronald D. Offutt, a.k.a. “RDO”).

Not only is Offutt scheduled to attend the event, but so is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The Toxic Taters Coalition is hoping to get a couple of hundred people to protest the event to hold Offutt’s feet to the fire about the pesticides his company uses.

“While it’s all fine and good that Concordia took his money to re-develop this school of business, people need to know that there’s another side to this story, and we’re going to use this opportunity to tell people all across

the nation about our concerns for human and environmental health that’s being affected because of the potatoes grown in Minnesota,” said Shimek.

On that day, the group will also be launching a campaign to call for a national day of action against McDonalds.

So why McDonalds? Out of all the restaurants that use RDO potatoes, why is there a target on McDonalds’ back?

Shimek says that’s because they happen to be a primary consumer of RDO/Lamb-Weston potatoes, and his group believes the power lies with the consumer. “The poisoning has gone on long enough, and we’re tired of the production and consumer ends of it trying to ignore us away,” said Shimek. “They need to know we’re not going anywhere until something is changed.”

In a written statement to the Detroit Lakes Newspapers, McDonalds spokesperson Danya Proud said, “McDonald’s works with our suppliers to source high-quality, safe ingredients in a responsible manner – caring for the environment as well as employees, animal welfare, and supply chain communities.”

When pressed for a more specific answer to whether McDonald’s was willing to have talks with RDO/Lamb-Weston and its other growers about reducing the amount of pesticides used on its potatoes, Proud referred a reporter back to RDO.

Paul Noah, a spokesperson for R.D. Offutt Company, also responded, saying his company investigates and initiates sustainable practices including their participation in the EPA’s Integrated Pest Management program that’s designed to protect crops while continuing to be a good steward to the community and environment, while also pointing out they are certified by the USDA as a participant in the Good Agricultural Practices.

“By using modern equipment and application methods, we minimize the potential for drift or exposure to any nutrients, irrigation, or crop protection we are applying to fields. Incorporating IPM principles and practices minimizes the need for crop protection while maintaining healthy, productive fields. And participating in good

agricultural practice and sustainability audits allows us to recognize areas in which we may need improvement while confirming our responsible farming practices,” Noah wrote. He added that RDO encourages and participates in open, candid discussions with community members about their farming practices.

Toxic Taters Coalition members say they plan on taking their discussions to the public in a loud and

insistent way as they prepare to protest.

“They’ll always tell you they’re doing everything right … that they’re doing a good job, but in the meantime people are getting sick,” said Shimek, “and we’re not looking to hurt anybody’s business or anybody’s jobs, but right now all we want is just a reduction the amount of pesticide they use.”

Paula Quam

Paula Quam is the editor for Forum Communications Co. newspapers in Detroit Lakes and Perham, both in Minnesota.

(218) 844-1466