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Bill Gates, GMO Potatoes and McDonald’s French Fries — What’s the Story?

Fact-checkers swooped in after social media memes claiming Bill Gates owns a farm that produces GMO potatoes for McDonald’s started gaining traction. Some memes got their facts wrong. But the fact is, Gates is rapidly acquiring farmland.

Fact-checkers swooped in after social media memes claiming Bill Gates owns a farm that produces genetically modified organism (GMO) potatoes for McDonald’s started gaining traction.

A March 25 Snopes “fact-check” verified that Gates does own a farm in Washington that grows potatoes for McDonald’s. But Snopes said statements made by other memes — claiming Gates supplies McDonald’s with all of its french fries and that they are grown at a “genetically modified potato farm” — were untrue.

Foto taken from Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10233548954212478&set=a.10211248976726978&type=3&ref=embed_post

None of the memes — or fact-checkers — addressed Gates’ growing investments in U.S. farmland or the use of pesticides on non-organic potatoes.

And none questioned why someone who promotes himself as concerned about global health — largely through global vaccine campaigns — would supply ingredients for a product known to contribute to cardiovascular conditions and weight gain and that contains 19 ingredients, including canola oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, dimethylpolysiloxane, tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, and citric acid.

Gates still scooping up farmland — through 20 holding companies

But while Gates may not own the other farms that supply potatoes to McDonald’s, by 2021 he had become the largest single owner of farmland in the U.S. according to The Land Report — albeit through a web of holding companies. By January 2021, Gates owned 268,984 acres of U.S. farmland in 18 states.

According to VNExpress, these holdings also make Gates the 42nd largest overall landowner in the U.S., “with most of those ranked above him owning mostly timberland.”

According to British fact-checker Full Fact:

McDonald’s potatoes are sourced from farms all over the world. One potato supplier listed on the McDonald’s USA website is owned by Bill Gates’ investment firm, but it’s not true to say all potatoes used by the fast food chain are from Mr Gates.”

That “one” supplier, 100 Circle Farms, “is not the only potato supplier to McDonald’s USA.” The farm “is located near the Columbia River in Patteson, Washington, and grows potatoes in rotation with other crops such as sweet corn and wheat.”

According to Snopes, 100 Circle Farms “is part of a large tract of farmland in Washington, near the Oregon-border, that Gates purchased through holding companies in 2018.”

McDonald’s claims that “100 Circle Farms grows potatoes in circles so big they’re visible from space. Then our trusted processor, Lamb Weston, cuts them into fries at 70 miles per hour.”

According to The Land Report, 100 Circle Farm’s acreage includes 10,500 acres of irrigated farmland, 3,900 acres of rangeland, and 140 acres of other land. The tract is located in a” highly productive agricultural region known as Horse Heaven Hills.” The land’s prior owner, John Hancock Life Insurance, paid $75 million in 2010 for the land.

Tri-City Herald report highlighting the tangled web of holding companies that obfuscates Gates’ farmland ownership, 100 Circle Farm was sold in 2018 to a Louisiana company, Angelina Agriculture Company.

Angelina Ag is a subsidiary company of Oak River Farms, a company that manages agricultural holdings for Cascade Investment — which operates as Gates’ private investment firm.

According to The Land Report:

“Though domiciled in Louisiana, Angelina Ag Company shares the same corporate mailing address as Gates’s Cottonwood Ag Management in Kirkland, Washington. Cottonwood Ag did not respond to inquiries from The Land Report.”

“Cascade, according to its website, does not publicly discuss its assets,” Snopes reported. Full Fact“contacted both Cascade Asset Management Company and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundationconcerning these land holdings” but said they declined to comment publicly.

Gates’ network of holding companies ‘tangled and opaque’

Gates has continued to buy farmland since The Land Report story was published in 2021.

In January, Investigate Midwest reported that Gates “spent $113 million on Nebraska farmland” between 2018 and 2022.

The Investigate Midwest report also shed more light on the web of companies connected to Gates that have purchased farmland across the U.S.:

Gates’ farmland is held by more than 20 shell companies spread across the country. Some lead back to a P.O. Box in Kirkland, Washington, the city where Cascade Asset Management, which manages all Gates’ investments, is headquartered.

“Others are linked to Lenexa, Kansas, and Monterey, Louisiana, population 371, where reporters have previously traced Gates’ operations.

“These limited liability companies, buried under layers of business names, overlapping employees and addresses in at least three states, form a network more tangled and opaque than the one created by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is buying a giant amount of Nebraska ranch land.”

According to the report, if Gates turns over ownership of the land to a nonprofit organization — like the Gates Foundation — he could potentially make the land “exempt from property taxes.”

Nebraska state Sen. Tom Brewer, a Republican, told Investigate Midwest if that were to happen, it would “decimate” the counties where Gates’ holdings are located. “It would force action from the Legislature to protect the counties,” Brewer said.

Why is Gates buying farmland? ‘Because he can.’

Controversy over Gates’ growing ownership of farmland is not new.

During a March 2021 Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) session, Gates explained why he was “buying so much farmland”:

“My investment group chose to do this. It is not connected to climate. The agriculture sector is important. With more productive seeds we can avoid deforestation and help Africa deal with the climate difficulty they already face.

“It is unclear how cheap biofuels can be but if they are cheap it can solve the aviation and truck emissions.”

And in a 2023 Reddit AMA session, Gates made similar claims:

“I own less than 1/4000 of the farmland in the U.S. I have invested in these farms to make them more productive and create more jobs. There isn’t some grand scheme involved. In fact, all these decisions are made by a professional investment team.”

Mark Kastel, director of OrganicEye, is not convinced. He told The Defender:

“The danger is exploiting the environment and the people (workers) involved in the operations. There could be downsides for society if these enterprises fail after squeezing out more sustainable competitors. The potential for a deterioration in the safety and/or nutritional density in our food certainly exists.”

Kastel said Gates’ strategy appears to reflect a desire for consolidating control over land ownership.

“The humorist Will Rogers said in the 1930s, ‘Buy land — they aren’t making any more of it!’ And his messaging was to individuals, not corporate landholders. It’s disturbing when an industry sector, so important to our well-being, is being viewed as an ‘investment,’” Kastel said.

Why is Gates buying farmland? “Because he can,” said Howard Vlieger, a member of the board of advisers of GMO/Toxin Free USA. “The Department of Justice has allowed too many monopolies to occur in numerous marketplaces in our country.”

Vlieger said industry consolidation “favors a select few and stacks the deck against those who believe in playing by the rules. Those who will cut every corner and don’t have morals or ethics seem to be rewarded.”

Kastel also likened Gates’ growing stake in U.S. farmland to the former Soviet Union’s centralized agriculture system:

“Centralized or corporate control of farming has proven to be a failure. That was tried in the Soviet Union and led to starvation.

“Farmers have a unique and broad skill set that’s not easily replicated. The work is arduous with long hours. And it’s hard to fairly and adequately compensate someone when they don’t have an equity stake.”

According to Kastel, mass concentrated ownership of farmland comes at the expense of care and stewardship of farmland.

“An attachment to the land fosters long-term stewardship priorities and we risk doing permanent ecological and economic damage if farm ground is exploited,” he said.

Gates’ non-GMO potatoes ‘contaminated with agrochemical residues’

Full Fact said the Gates-McDonald’s french fry memes got it wrong on the issue of genetically modified potatoes. “None of the potatoes from 100 Circles Farm are genetically modified,” Full Fact said.

But the fact-checker also said, “There have been reports of other GM ingredients being used in the McDonald’s supply chain, such as soybeans for oil or corn to feed animal stock.”

Kastel said this argument is misleading, “because genetically engineered potatoes are not common.”

“Even non-GMO crops, unless they’re certified organic, typically are contaminated with agrochemical residues and potentially other compounds — spreading sewage sludge, contaminated with industrial chemicals, is forbidden in organic production but a common practice in conventional agriculture,” Kastel said.

Vlieger advised consumers to pay close attention to food product labels:

“If food products in the grocery store do not contain the Non-GMO certification seal, it is best to presume that it is GMO. I personally will not eat any potato product unless I know where and how it is produced. I know how conventional potatoes are raised and I don’t care to consume foreign proteins from GMOs or the chemical residues that come along with it. Potatoes are very efficient at removing chemical residues form the soil.

“I think it might be a good idea if people would read the complete ingredient list before consuming any food item. There is a trustworthy saying, if you cannot pronounce it or you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it.”

Vlieger said “Mass-produced commodity crop production is dependent upon chemical intensive, industrial agriculture. This is not good for the health of the environment, the plants, the animals or the people.”

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