McDonald's Influence on the Food System

the modern realities of factory farming and Big Ag

McDonald’s unparalleled influence

Daily, McDonald's sells beef, chicken, and potatoes to billions of people. In turn, it's a lead purchaser of beef, pork, potatoes, apples, chicken, fish, and lettuce: staple foods that are the building blocks of every meal.

No surprise, then: Big Ag falls over backwards to meet the needs of its number-one customer.

Because McDonald’s buys and sells food on such an immense scale, it has almost unrivaled clout in our food production. Big Food giants like Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, Bunge, and Tyson exist as we know them today in response to McDonald's unparalleled demand for high volumes of consistent ingredients.

Here's an example of what that looks like:

How McDonald's single-handedly changed potato farming

When McDonald’s began, it was buying potatoes from 175 local farms. But for founder Ray Kroc, this was much too inefficient. He wanted to monopolize the supply, and he wanted a uniform potato. He chose one supplier, JR Simplot, which built enormous potato farms -- based upon unsustainable farming practices that delivered a potato suitable for McDonald's much-hyped uniform fries.

Traditionally, potatoes are “dryland” farmed – which means their size, shape, and texture change with the seasonal weather. To grow the potatoes McDonald's required, Simplot needed to irrigate its fields. This not only requires an intensive use of water, but also enormous amounts of energy to transport the water. And as year after year, potatoes are grown in the same fields (or "monocropped"), soil degrades, causing more chemicals and fertilizers to be carried into rivers and streams through the irrigation runoff. The result? A devastating cycle of pollution and environmental degradation.

But, it works for McDonald's.

Simplot's methods crushed the competition. It is now one of the largest privately owned corporations in the world. Today, Simplot will contract with potato growers who irrigate their fields and deliver potatoes with a uniform length, appearance, and color. 

Because of the enormous scope and influence of Simplot, chances are that the potato you buy from the grocery store or eat at a restaurant is the same potato that McDonald’s uses for its fries.

It all comes back to marketing

Together, we can exert pressure on the burger giant by exposing the reality behind its brand. By challenging the corporation’s brand falsehoods, our campaign holds McDonald’s accountable for its role in driving damaging practices up and down the supply chain.

And the impact of every small change can be enormous, sending a tidal wave through the food system.

For instance, when McDonald’s attempted to “farmwash” its image by running a series of misleading ads implying its ingredients are delivered from "farm to fork," we and our allies exposed the reality in the media: McDonald’s food generally travels from huge, environmentally damaging farms ... to factories ... to fork.

Just a few weeks later, the corporation announced it would put an end to a particularly inhumane factory farming practice. It required its pork suppliers to stop using gestation crates -- the cramped cages used to breed pigs, immobilizing them for virtually their entire lives. Suppliers across the country quickly began to adopt plans to phase out these crates, knowing the burger giant's new requirement would radically alter their practices. And, following McDonald's lead, fast food corporations Burger King and Wendy's announced plans to do the same, furthering the impact of this single change by McDonald's.


Photo courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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