Will McDonald's Have New and Healthy GMO French Fries?

These "world famous fries" just got a little more famous, but not everyone is happy. Source: McDonald's

Amazing. Marvelous. Wonderful. Fun. Those are four words that cannot be used to describe the last few weeks for McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) , which has been criticized for having one of the least-compensated workforces in the country and recently announced a fall in same-store sales. If you thought it couldn't get any worse, you were wrong. The company is also being sucked into the vortex of bickering and conspiracy theories that has, unfortunately, become the debate over genetically engineered food products.

McDonald's isn't as despised as Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) for its business practices (not yet anyway), but now it, too, can have the same anti-GMO furor directed its way for its pending decision to utilize a genetically engineered potato for its french fries. While the GMO debate has been shown to boil down to a mistrust of science (link opens PDF) and generally pits consumer emotion against complex and misunderstood biotechnologies, there are major health and environmental benefits to using the new potatoes. That alone will be enough to sway McDonald's -- the world's largest potato buyer -- to utilize the new spuds. Here's why.

Resistance is futile
Biotech crops have been commercially grown since 1996 and now include varieties of most major agricultural crops. The potato may not be as widespread as corn, but that didn't stop Monsanto from trying its hand at engineering spuds in the past. Unfortunately, the first generation GMO potato caved to consumer pressure. As noted author and business and sustainability speaker Marc Gunther succinctly summarized in a recent article for The Guardian:

As it happens, this isn't the first time a biotech company has tried to improve the lowly potato. In 1998, Monsanto introduced NewLeaf potatoes, which were engineered to repel a pest called the Colorado potato beetle. Several years later, Monsanto withdrew from the potato business after anti-GMO activists persuaded McDonald's and Frito-Lay to tell their suppliers not to grow NewLeaf potatoes.

A lot has happened in the past decade. McDonald's largest potato supplier, Simplot, has developed and tested a next-generation spud called Innate, which is undergoing regulatory review -- as do all GMO foods -- from the United States Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency. It's going to be much more difficult for a consumer movement to kill the Innate potato, however. Why?

The next-generation spuds offer reduced black spots from bruising, which make them more presentable, and therefore more marketable, to consumers. That will reduce food waste and add value to the end of the supply chain for grocers and fast-food franchises. Innate potatoes have also been engineered to produce less asparagine, a protein that combines with sugars at high temperatures (during frying, for example) to create potentially carcinogenic acrylamide.

Think about that. GMO critics advocating on behalf of consumer health and attempting to bury Innate potatoes for fear of phantom health risks associated with engineered foods are simultaneously denying consumers important health benefits. Does anyone else find that disturbing?

Foolish bottom line
While the debate over GMO foods and ingredients isn't going away anytime soon, McDonald's will have an awfully tough time turning down the two major advantages offered by Innate potatoes (assuming Simplot gets the necessary regulatory nods for marketing). Agricultural biotechnology has progressed too far in the last two decades for next-generation crops, which can be even more beneficial for the health of our planet and consumers than current crops, to be run out of the marketplace by emotion. If Innate potatoes are just as safe as "traditional" potatoes -- as current studies have demonstrated -- then why should McDonald's or consumers say no? 

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Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (1)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2013, at 10:14 AM, lannit wrote:

    This author needs to do a little more research on GMO issues. The GMO debate doesn't just boil down to a "mistrust" of science. It's much more complicated than that. There are a growing number of studies that debunk many of the pro-GMO myths that were dreamed up by PR types, e.g. they have higher yields than conventional crops, use less pesticide, and so on. For readers wanting to know more, take a look at this well-documented report:

    http://www.earthopensource.org/index.php/executive-summary

    As for McDonalds, its falling sales are increasingly due to consumer avoidance of GMO foods. If you look at the food products at McDonalds, you'll find multiple GMO ingredients throughout. Its french fries already contain 17 ingredients and are increasingly shunned. Adding GMO potatoes will just make consumers more wary. Chipotle set the non-GMO standard for the fast food industry with its transparent labeling of all GMO ingredients and intention to be entirely GMO-free sometime in 2014. Doubt that consumer avoidance of GMOs is the cause...just check the sales for Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg's and General Mills...all of which use GMO ingredients extensively in their food and beverage products. It's simple...consumer choices are just market forces at work...

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2013, at 12:50 PM, Weitzhuis wrote:

    While at McDonald's i first read this article, and, yes, the french fires were quite tasty, 17 ingredients and all. The above article from earthopenhead couldn't be further from the truth:

    http://www.biofortified.org/genera/studies-for-genera/

    IT should also be noted that anti-gmoers, being the back to nature folks that they are, have shunned fast food establishements for decades and never pass up a chance to insult them, whether they use GMO ingredients or not. Hence, McDonalds, et al, have nothing to lose adopting GM potatoes and everything to gain.

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2013, at 3:31 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @lannit

    The "mistrust of science" link to anti-GMO sentiment was one of the conclusions of the study linked above.

    Best,

    Maxx

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 8:16 AM, eyeknonothing wrote:

    The link is from a biotech website. The first sentence says something like "Is Glyphosate toxic to humans" and then likens Glyphosate to water and salt.

    Your facts are wrong Maxx. Stop being a Monsatan cheerleader.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 3:13 PM, lannit wrote:

    Did you read the study, Maxx? Apparently not. It's a study of the attitudes of Australians, not Americans, so it's completely inappropriate to cite that study in regards to American consumer attitudes about GMO food and food ingredients.

    If you did adequate research on what American consumers who make food purchases think, you'd find that the primary issue for them centers on food safety, a concern that includes GMOs but extends far beyond to dyes derived from petroleum and coal tar, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils as a source of transfat, pesticide contamination, MSG and so on.

    Let's face it...the GMO Innate Potato, like the Flavr-Savr tomato, will be a flop because American consumers won't eat it. There are already well-organized, nationwide protests warning McDonalds not to adopt the GMO potato and promising boycotts of its restaurants if the GMO potato is adopted. That decision will be a no-brainer for a fast-food chain whose same store sales continue to be down...

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2013, at 7:24 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @lannit

    I don't see a problem with using an Australian study on consumer attitudes and opinions toward science to make a general statement about GMO sentiment. The issues are the same regardless of country: health risks related to food.

    If science has repeatedly found no link between GMOs and health risks, then why are so many people opposed to them? I fear it has an awful lot to do with a mistrust of science and the tendency to lean on conspiracy theories (scientists are corrupt, etc).

    Best,

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2013, at 11:48 PM, rolandandrews wrote:

    @iannit

    You probably should not comment on science based articles. The correlation of decreased McDonald's consumption does not relate to GMO foods. If this were the case, Wal-Mart food sales would not continue its steady growth. Rather, McDonald's reduction in sales relate to their corporate strategy and health concerns on processed food, excessive sugar/salt, and red meat. GMO's don't play a role. Why? The only fear mongers against GMO already avoid McDonald's like the plague and prefer to eat at the Whole Foods deli for $12.

    The irony related to even one "boycott" against the Innate potato would discredit the protesting organization. These guys have been protesting McDonald's just to protest McDonald's effects on obesity and non-organic food supply. A protest against a rigorously USDA studied GMO potato with a human health benefit will force consumers to question your fundraising and fear mongering tactics. A group like yours would partner with these guys if you were smart. It would bring credibility to your cause and force other biotech companies like Monsanto to commercialize human health traits... but I guess your organic cronies wouldn't make money with that strategy. Rather, you'll just slowly lose credibility as more GMO health traits commercialize, organics get tarnished by manure food safety issues, and two more decades pass with no unintended effects from GMO technologies.

    You know what they say about the frog in a pot of warm water that eventually boils, right? Hope you kiss the prince first ;) muahhh!

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