Questions persist in ‘Troubled Waters’ film flap

By John Croman,

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Lawmakers and citizens gave positive marks to the "Troubled Waters" documentary after viewing it Wednesday, but still had tough questions for the dean of the University of Minnesota’s school of agriculture about academic freedom at the U.

"I thought it was a fair representation of what is going on in Minnesota, and very factual," Rep. Jean Wagenius told KARE, after watching the 57-minute film, which highlights the impact of high yield farming on water pollution and sediment levels in the Mississippi River.

Rep. Wagenius is a member of the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. Based on the commission’s advice, the Bell Museum of Natural History received $350,000 from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund to help pay for production of the film. That fund comes state lottery proceeds and investment income.

The U of M unleashed a flood of controversy in early September when it abruptly cancelled the museum’s planned screenings of the film and halted the scheduled broadcast on Twin Cities Public Television. The university later cleared the Troubled Waters for screening at the Bell, and for airing on Twin Cities Public Television.

"The books were closed. We had already gotten the product," Wagenius remarked, "For somebody to think that in this day and age it wasn’t going to be shown, that people weren’t going to see it, was not a competent reaction."

The film, which was reviewed by a group of scientists, rankled some elements at the U of M by stating that federal energy policies push over production of corn for ethanol, and farm subsidy programs are designed to reward maximum yields. The film points out that both practices tend to increase chemicals in the watershed and can contribute to more rapid erosion of top soil.

The Bell Museum, which is part of the U’s School of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources, was the supervising producer of the project. The order to pull the plug was delivered by the University Relations office, but it has never been established who made the decision.

"This was an unfortunate set of events that occurred here," Allen Levine, the ag school’s dean, told the commission Wednesday.

"The communications were not clear on it, and I apologize for that," he explained, "I’m thrilled that the movie is going to be shown."

Commission member Jeffrey Broberg of Rochester told Levine he found the entire episode frightening and perplexing.

"Blunders are often caused by single-minded views, and it seemed like there was a process where single-minded people were making decisions here."

Fellow commissioner Nancy Gibson of Saint Louis Park added, "We’ve done other films, and we’ve done other projects, most likely with the university and I want to make sure they have academic freedom."

Levine said in his 26 years in the university system, primarily as a nutritionist in the health sciences field, academic freedom was never in doubt at the U of M. He did explain why he was critical of the film when interviewed by Minnesota Public radio two weeks ago.

"Agriculture and farmers have been blamed for society’s problems over and over," Levine told the committee, "I spent all those years at the medical school hearing that obesity, cancer, bone disease — you name it — was due to our agriculture."

"But society is involved as well. When you choose to eat the way you eat, when China chooses to eat the kinds of foods it’s going to, and forces us to grow the kinds of crops we do in terms of an economic benefit."

He said the farmers he’s met since taking the helm at the ag school are very concerned about being good stewards of the land.

Producer speaks

The writer-director-producer of Troubled Waters, Larkin McPhee, told the panel she started the film in the nitrogen fed "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico because it’s a strong visual peg for the story.

"The dead zone was a very obvious place to begin. It’s a dramatic example of excess nitrogen," said McPhee, who has created films for PBS and HBO.

That nitrogen comes from fertilizers in commercial farming and residential lawn chemicals, which make their way into the rivers through rain run-off. In fact, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak appears in the film to discuss the choices city dwellers can make in their own yards.

"It’s a very complex world that we live in. There’s a lot of competing interests on this river," McPhee said, "I know I will never look at my front yard the same after working on this film."

She devoted a portion of the documentary to farmers who are employing new techniques to lower their nitrogen inputs. Others are revising drainage systems and devoting more acreage to prairie and wetlands, which naturally filter the rain water.

"That’s what was bright about that movie," Gibson told her fellow commissioners, "There are some alternatives that we can seek, and hopefully encourage and hopefully discuss!"

The Bell Museum will have two public screenings of the film, Sunday, October 3rd at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., with free tickets available through a rush lottery.

The documentary will air on Twin Cities Public Television, or TPT Channel 2, Tuesday October 5th at 8:00 p.m. and repeat six hours later at 2:00 a.m. Oct. 6th. It will run again TPT Life on Wednesday Oct. 6 at 4:00 p.m.

The Land Stewardship Project, a group that promotes small scale environmentally sustainable farming and markets for locally grown food, will hold a press conference outside the Bell Museum at 3:45. The group is demanding a full investigation by the university into the circumstances that led to the film being pulled.


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