An order of french fries.
The Quick Take
A group of Russians came to the United States to look into developing a french fries business--supplying frozen cut potatoes to meet their country's growing demand for western-style fast foods. They met with a consultant, a former countryman who now worked as a food market research analyst for one of the major burger chains. The consultant took them out to one of his company's restaurants, picked up a large order of fries, and between mouthfuls gave his clients some advice.
"Fries have been a huge success here," he told them. "I see three reasons. First, they give you a high profit margin. One potato, and you got a whole box of fries! Second, with all that fat and salt, they're addictive--the fat gives them that mouth-feel people crave, and the salt makes the customers thirsty and increases their purchases of drinks, so the retailers see that as an added value. And third, the fries are frozen, so you can keep them as long as you like. No worry about sprouts growing out of your potatoes, and no waste."
The Harder Look
The consultant's information, as far as it went, was essentially correct. One 10-ounce potato makes about 90 fries--the number in a large fries sold at McDonald's or Burger King. That amount of potato sells for about 15 cents in a grocery store, but brings $1.25 in the restaurant. And the fat and salt, which add little cost, do indeed seem to stimulate demand. In 1960, 92 percent of the potatoes Americans ate were fresh; by 1990, Americans were eating more frozen potatoes (mostly french fries) than fresh ones. People who used to sit down to eat their potatoes mashed or baked, from a plate, were now eating them from a paper box, while driving.
Unfortunately, the consultant's account left out much of the story. While the Russians might build a new potato processing plant and thereby create new jobs for their community and fat profits for themselves, this plant could--depending on how the business is managed--end up being more of a curse to its community than a blessing. A more comprehensive account of how french fries are produced explains why.
Whether the fries are ordered at a road stop in Ohio or at a beach concession in Florida, they probably originated on a potato farm in the upper Snake River Valley of southern Idaho. That valley and the Columbia River Basin into which it flows produce 80 percent of U.S. frozen french fries.
The growing season is 150 days. The potato plants are watered repeatedly, with each 10-ounce potato eventually receiving seven and a half gallons--enough, if applied all at once, to submerge the field two feet deep. The water is drawn from the Snake River, which drains a basin the size of Colorado. In the basin's upper reaches, irrigation of potatoes and other crops takes all of the river's water. Below Milner Dam, west of Pocatello, the river bed is bone dry much of the year.
Eighty percent of the Snake River's original riparian habitat is gone. Most of it has been replaced by reservoirs and irrigation canals. Salmon and steel-head no longer run up the Snake River. Sturgeon, a fish that can live up to 100 years and weigh more than 1,000 pounds, are nearly gone.
The potatoes are treated with fertilizers and pesticides, to ensure that their shape and appearance meet the demands of buyers. Much of the fertilizer's nitrogen leaches into groundwater, making it unfit for either drinking or irrigation. Whenever it rains, some of the fertilizers and pesticides wash into streams or lakes. There, the accumulating nitrogen often causes algal blooms--mats of green growth that rob the water of its oxygen and suffocate fish and other aquatic life. Tests of waters by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have found agricultural contaminants in every tributary of the Columbia, including the Snake River.
The harvested potatoes are trucked to a processing plant nearby. Half of their weight is lost in processing. Most of the loss is water; the rest is potato parts such as "eyes," which are sold as cattle feed. For each potato processed, two-thirds of a gallon of wastewater containing one-third of a gram of nitrogen is produced. This wastewater is sprayed on a field outside the plant. Because the field is unplanted, the nitrogen sinks into the ground.
As a result, nitrate concentrations in well water near the potato processing plants frequently exceed the standards of the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act. These wells provide drinking water to the mobile homes and cabins that house seasonal Hispanic workers. Nitrates in drinking water cause methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby syndrome," a rare but deadly malady afflicting infants.
Freezing the peeled and sliced potato requires electricity, which is generated by a hydroelectric dam on the Snake River. Frozen foods commonly require 10 times more energy to produce than their fresh counterparts. Thus, with frozen potatoes accounting for a share of the market at least six times larger than in 1960, the energy use for each million pounds of potatoes consumed today is at least three times greater than it was 35 years ago.
The potatoes are frozen by means of chlorofluorocarbon coolants (CFCs), some of which escape from the processing plant into the atmosphere. Ten miles up, in the stratosphere, they begin to break apart ozone molecules--allowing increased ultraviolet radiation to reach the Earth. Ultraviolet radiation reduces crop yields, causes skin cancer and cataracts, and suppresses the human immune system.
The frozen fries are transported around the country in refrigerated eighteen-wheel fossil fuel-powered trucks that produce thousands of tons of carbon emissions--believed to be a major cause of global warming, which is likely to have adverse effects on the world's weather, crops, biological diversity, and health. The refrigerator units in the trucks, too, use CFC coolants.
In restaurants, the cut potatoes are fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil from Nebraska, and sprinkled with salt from Utah. The oil gives the fries a very high fat content. High-fat foods have been implicated in obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Finally, the fries are placed in a paper box made of wood pulp bleached white by chlorine. Small amounts of the chlorine escape from the bleaching mills in the form of several hundred different organochlorine compounds, which end up in rivers, fish, and the human food chain. These chemicals have been associated with reproductive, endocrine, and immune system diseases, as well as with cancer.
The Longer View
Does this mean fries are bad? And does it suggest that the Russian entrepreneurs would be making a bad investment--or a socially irresponsible one--if they started producing fries back home?
The answer to both questions is a qualified no. French fries, like most other consumer products, are by themselves neither good nor bad. It depends on how they are grown, processed, transported, and consumed.
Unfortunately, most fries are far more ecologically and economically costly than they need to be. As sketched out above, their production has contributed to excess energy use, ozone layer depletion, global warming, crop loss, drying up of a major river, destruction of riparian habitat, decimation of at least three fish populations, eutrophication of streams and lakes, contamination of drinking water, and increased incidence of at least nine categories of human disease.
All of these detrimental effects could be reduced, and some of them eliminated, through changes in the way french fries are either produced or consumed:
Potatoes could be grown in areas where rainfall and groundwater resources are sufficient to meet crop needs and it is not necessary to steal all the water out of an ecologically significant river;
Organic or integrated pest management techniques could eliminate or reduce the need for pesticides;
Consumer education could reduce the need to apply agricultural chemicals merely to enhance the shape or uniformity of potatoes, since irregularities in the shapes of the fries do not diminish their nutritional value or taste;
Wastewater from processing plants could be handled in a way that doesn't contaminate the drinking water of local people;
Freezing could be done with alternative refrigeration technologies not requiring ozone-depleting coolants;
Potatoes could be transported by vehicles using alternative propulsion technologies that produce less carbon gas;
Potatoes could be fried in unhydrogenated oil;
The boxes could be made without chlorine bleaching;
And finally, consumers could change their eating habits--even if only a little. If millions of people were to cut back on their french fries consumption by just a quarter (perhaps increasing their consumption of baked or mashed potatoes by a comparable amount), the result would be a significant benefit for both public health and the environment.
And if entrepreneural Russians (or others) study the whole life cycle of a product (rather than just the market-research data) before going into business, they'll be aware that what's at stake is an investment not just in future profits, but in a resource base, a community, and a sustainable economy. That's true whether the product is french fries, vodka, or rocket science.
NOTE: The story of the Russian entrepreneurs is fictional, but the facts about potatoes are true. Alan Thein Durning is the director of Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle, Washington. Ed Ayres is editor of World Watch.
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|Title Annotation:||environmental impact|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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