Troubled Waters – Troubled UBy BY BRIAN DEVORE, LOON COMMONS, Twin Cities Daily Planet
September 19, 2010
When the Daily Planet revealed this week that the U of M has pulled the plug on the premiere of an important film about farming and the Mississippi River, it wasn’t just another hint that corporate powers are calling the shots at the state’s ag college. It was also a troubling peek into just how willing some officials are to allow those shots to be called, perhaps even before the trigger’s been pulled.
Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story documents how excessive nutrient runoff from farms in Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest are creating a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. The film, which is directed/produced by award-winning filmmaker Larkin McPhee, then goes on to show how "sustainable" and "conventional" farmers in this state are using innovative systems to reduce the nitrogen and other nutrients that are making their way into the Mississippi, and eventually to the Gulf.
I viewed a near-finished version of the film last spring, and was extremely impressed. It did an excellent job of laying out the problem and then showing how average people – farmers as well as the general public – can use a combination of innovative production systems, good policy and creative market forces to fix something that is causing major problems both here and a thousand miles downstream.
McPhee and the others involved with the film project were very aware of how controversial the dead zone issue is. Just as there is a small, vocal group of global climate change deniers out there, business and political forces within the agribusiness community claim there is no connection between Midwestern farms and dead oysters in the Gulf. This, despite an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to the contrary.
As a result, the film’s producers bent over backwards – almost to a fault – to make the film as fair and scientifically accurate as possible. McPhee is no amateur on a mission. She’s done work for, among others, NOVA and National Geographic Explorer, entities known for their strict adherence to scientific standards.
Troubled Waters is not an anti-farmer screed. In fact, it carries a very positive message: that farmers are part of the solution right here in our own backyard.
But for now, you’ll have to take my word for it. That’s because, just a few weeks before it was to premiere on Twin Cities Public Television and at the Bell Museum of Natural History, university officials announced the release of Troubled Waters was to be put off indefinitely. The film was made on contract for the Bell (which is part of the U’s ag college) utilizing a combination of private foundation and public monies, including significant funds through the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) through the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Why was the film’s release blocked at the last minute? The official word via spokespeople statements and press releases is that the film needed "further scientific review" because it’s an LCCMR-funded project. When reporters at the Daily Planet, Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minnesota Public Radio asked for specifics about what was scientifically wrong with the film, they were met with a lot of double talk, "I don’t knows" and plain old stony silence. (Molly Priesmeyer has written an excellent follow-up article in the Daily Planet on how the LCCMR is being kept in the dark by U officials on the future of the film as well; apparently being a legislative commission doesn’t gain you any more respect from certain U officials than being a member of the press or general public).
Consider this Star Tribune quote from Martin Moen, associate director for communications at the Bell: " ‘