About Real Potatoes: A Memo to the U.S. Potato Board

 Big Food is watching.

The Real Potato has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few months, but in the food blog world it’s still a tiny player (we just got our ten thousandth hit!).  Which is why I’m surprised by the amount of attention we’ve received from the food industry.

When I posted about diacetyl poisoning and microwave popcorn, a rival popcorn company jumped up to let you readers know that their product doesn’t contain diacetyl (at least, not anymore). The ongoing debate about foie gras has attracted some attention from representatives of the industry, both on the site and in my email inbox. And when I asked readers to submit recipes that have personal meaning to them, I got instead a response from the U.S. Potato Board. (I’ve deleted it, in an attempt to discourage further spamming.) “Alona” submitted a tasty-looking recipe and a plug for the Potato Board’s new blog, thepotatounderground.com.

Let’s talk about the U.S. Potato Board, then, shall we? After all, why would I delete something from the U.S. Potato Board? I like potatoes, they like potatoes, what’s the problem?

The Potato Board’s stated goals are as follows:

Mission Statement

The mission of the United States Potato Board is to increase demand for potatoes and potato products through an integrated promotion program, thereby providing US producers with expanding markets for their production.

Long Range Goals

-Increase usage of US potatoes and potato products
-Expand markets
-Improve the competitive position of potatoes and potato products
-Present a favorable image of potatoes to the public

Readers of Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Fast Food Nation might remember that the number one buyer of potatoes in the United States is– you guessed it– McDonald’s. (You can read Schlosser’s famous article on this topic, “Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good,” here.) So the Potato Board, naturally, has billions of compelling reasons to support and promote the expansion of the fast food industry.

Now, there’s a contradiction built into all such industry boards. The problem is that these organizations officially represent all potato growers, from the smallest family farm to the biggest agribusiness corporations. In practice, though, guess whose interests are served?

I’ve been reading the book Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. I’ve come across it again and again in my research on environmental politics, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what’s going on behind the PR curtain. Here’s a relevant example of this phenomenon, involving the PR firm Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin (MBD):

In 1997, MBD’s work became the focus of a minor scandal when agricultural journalist Alan Guebert discovered that the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) had paid MBD some $48,000 to investigate groups, including the National Farmers Union, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Land Stewardship Project, and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. NPPC is a quasigovernmental organization that gets most of its funding in “pork checkoff funds” that farmers are required to pay when they market their pigs… MBD’s report was aimed at advising it on how to counter “agricultural activist groups” that oppose construction of new corporate hog facilities. These activist groups were in fact defenders of small family farms, and their farmer-members were understandably unhappy to learn that their own trade organization had hired a PR firm to investigate them (Stauber and Rampton, 133). (Another account of this incident can be found here.)

Certainly the situation is getting worse for small growers. According to Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the fast food industry’s status as the largest potato buyer has allowed the development of

an “oligopsony”– a market in which a small number of buyers exert power over a large number of sellers. The giant processing companies do their best to drive down the prices offered to potato farmers… Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast food restaurant, perhaps 2 cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes. Idaho’s potato farmers now face enormous pressure to get bigger– or get out of the business. (Schlosser, 117)

Small Idaho growers attempted to fight this monopoly by organizing themselves into the Potato Growers of Idaho (PGI). But the major growers, the same ones who make up the U.S. Potato Board, intervened to stop them:

A few years ago, the PGI tried to create a formal alliance with potato farmers in Oregon and Washington, an effort that would have linked producers in the three states that grow most of the nation’s potatoes. The alliance was undermined by one of the big processors, which cut lucrative deals with a core group of potato farmers… The “joint ventures” now being offered by processing companies provide farmers with the potato seed and financing for their crop, an arrangement that should dispel any lingering illusions about their independence. “If potato farmers don’t band together,” [PGI staff member] Bert Moulton warns, “they’ll wind up sharecroppers.” (Schlosser 119)

Of course, it’s not only the major growers’ disdain for small farmers that bothers me.  I could (and perhaps I will, in future posts) go into great detail about:

  • How the fast food industry’s monopoly as the largest potato buyer has led to the destruction of biodiversity.  The dominance of fast food and convenience foods means that the majority of potatoes served in and exported from the US are in the form of frozen, processed products: mostly french fries, but also lots of Tater Tots, TV dinners and other grocery items. Such foods require potato varieties that won’t lose their texture when pumped full of additives, frozen, shipped, and then fried or microwaved. This means that a few varieties of potatoes, notably Russets, are grown in massive amounts, and other, often tastier potato varieties are produced only by small specialty producers.  Many have been driven to the brink of extinction. Where our grandparents may have eaten different local varieties of potatoes, our options have been limited– and not just with potatoes, but tomatoes and other vegetables, not to mention the corn and wheat that go into just about every kind of processed food available. This is dangerous, because overexposure to the same varieties of foods over and over are a suspected factor in the development of food allergies.  (It’d be great if there was more research on this, but who’s going to fund it?)
  • The potato industry’s use of the public as guinea pigs in its experiments with genetically modified foods.  In fact, it was GM potatoes that Hungarian-born scientist Árpád Pusztai was researching when he inadvertently touched off a major controversy.  Pusztai, then an enthusiastic advocate of GM foods, was performing experiments to research whether the lectins in GM potatoes would harm laboratory rats.  His results were troubling enough that, when asked about his research on a British news show, he stated that he thought GM foods should be more thoroughly tested before they could safely be released into the food supply.  He was summarily forced to take an early retirement, ostracized by the colleagues who had formerly respected him, and subjected to a smear campaign in the press.  His potatoes were seized, and when the British medical journal The Lancet was preparing to print his results, its editor received threatening phone calls from industry representatives.  (Stauber and Rampton, 152-64, 189)

So forgive me, “Alona” of the Potato Board, for not welcoming your participation on this site.  It’s just that I don’t buy the down-home, folksy image you’re trying to convey.  The industry you represent is controlled by agribusiness giants like Monsanto— and it’s doing everything it can to crush the down-home, folksy farmers you’re impersonating.

This is The Real Potato, not The Pesticide-Laden, Genetically Engineered, Processed, Frozen Frankentato, and Alona, we are not friends.


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8 Responses to “About Real Potatoes: A Memo to the U.S. Potato Board”

  1. pal002 Says:

    Great post. Keep up the good work!

    *Raises Glass* To the next 10,000 posts!

  2. mbjesq Says:

    I like frittes as much, if not more, than the next guy. But the Russets-for-McDonalds grown to the exclusion of other, more interesting varieties, is typical of the just-feed-me-whatever-shit-is-cheap-and-easy mentality we have fostered in this country. The pleasure of selecting from various varieties of fruits and vegetables, and of tasting subtle differences within varieties grown in different areas, is lost to the average person, who has neither the access or the budget (for they have become quite pricey) to shop at farmers’ markets. Quite sad.

  3. Clumsy Says:

    Great post! I’m so happy I’ve found your blog. I have so much fun reading it and I feel like I learn new things each post!

  4. Renegade Eye Says:

    The Potato Board represents big corporations. Color me shocked.

    My comrades are celebrating the Russian Revolution this week, by cooking a Russian meal. Trotsky’s birthday coincides with the day of the Rev.

  5. Amit Says:

    Good one, Sarah.

    Have you read Stauber and Rampton’s earlier work – “Toxic Sludge is Good for You – Lies, damn lies and the PR industry”? That is another excellent and eye-opening book. Good to know they both are still going strong.
    I think there’s something seriously wrong when food is treated the same as any other product industry where the goal is more and more growth (figuratively speaking). Will the potato board’s goal be met when each and every person on this planet eats potatoes for three meals a day? It’s not only stupid but ridiculous!!!

  6. Sacred Harvest Says:

    I love this entry! My husband is the son of a potato farmer that lost his land under the Reganomics regime. The average citizen has no idea how hard it is for the family farmer to make a living in a world of oligopsony. What we are doing to our family farms is sadly correlated to the obesity epidemic, the environmental crisis, and political corruption. Keep up the excellent reporting!

  7. Jeff McCoy Says:

    Right on, Sarah! Rake that muck!

  8. mom Says:

    This is soooo depressing. Color me farmers’ markets.

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