Friday, October 15, 2010

The Troubled Waters 

of Big Ags Influence

Last month, the University of Minnesota caused a stir when it decided to postpone the release of a film that focuses on the effect agriculture is having on U.S. waterways from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. 

...ace reporting by Molly Preismeyer at the Twin Cities Daily Planet revealed that the film's team had already thoroughly fact-checked the film, and followed the review process utilized by the PBS science program NOVA. Attempts to get the university to outline a standard procedure for research-based films were not fruitful. Then the story shifted once again when Dean Allen Levine told Minnesota Public Radio that the film "vilifies agriculture."

Even though the University caved under pressure and allowed the scheduled premiere of the film to take place on October 3 and on October 5 on a local television station, the story of Troubled Waters has developed into a debate on academic freedom and the role a university's donors should play in its research priorities.

Funding versus research

Not long after the news broke that Troubled Waters was being held up, it came to light that Vice President of University Relations Karen Himle was behind the film's purgatory. This information was notable because her husband John Himle is president of Himle Horner, a public relations firm that represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a group that promotes both ethanol production and industrial agriculture practices.

More troubling, as El Dragón at Fair Food Fight points out, is the fact that Cargill-which is a key player in ethanol production-has its VP on the University of Minnesota's board. And that the U of M also has a building on its St. Paul campus named for Cargill. In addition, the university has had funding put at risk by its research before, and so could be trigger-happy. Minnesota Public Radio reports:

"In 2008, two Minnesota Soybean groups threatened to pull $1.5 million in funding after the U of M released a study that said using soybeans and other crops for bio-fuels could worsen global warming."

All of this added controversy is doing one thing that cannot be denied: bringing more attention to the issues at hand by driving interest in reading the books and seeing the films at the eye of the storm.

As for Troubled Waters, I highly recommend you take the opportunity to see it for yourself. It is unique in that it puts a face on the farmers at the heart of the discussion, gives a broader picture of the issues at hand, and outlines options-including one community's thriving alternative to ethanol-for building a more sustainable food system.

The film can be purchased from The Bell Museum


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