The science behind ‘Troubled Waters’

The agricultural runoff the film explains is already well-documented.
By
  • Jayme Dittmar
October 04, 2010

I’m still trying to understand why University of Minnesota officials attempted to delay the premiere of Troubled Waters for “scientific review,” after having watched the film Sunday. The science, after all, it documents is nothing new or controversial.
 


The film shows the effects of pollution in the Mississippi River caused by agricultural runoff. It’s been well known that the runoff — caused by soil erosion, plowing, application of fertilizers, grazing and animal waste — has been harming the Mississippi River along with the Gulf of Mexico, into which the river flows.
 


Thousands of collegiate lectures, environmental groups, along with Yale researchers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture  have documented this fact. So it’s troubling, if odd, that the University questioned it in attempting to delay the premiere of the documentary for, among other reasons, “scientific review.”
 


Al Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Sciences, originally said that the film bothered him because it “vilified agriculture.”
 


Last week, he told the Legislative Citizens Committee, which oversaw and funded Troubled Waters, that “farmers are blamed for society’s problems over and over.” It seems that Levine was not so much concerned with the actual scientific veracity of the film, but rather its balance. That’s the same problem journalism suffers in attempting to be objective: Just because a fact makes a person or group look bad doesn’t mean it’s untrue, nor that it needs to be “balanced” with a completely unrelated fact to make that person or group look good.
 


Newsflash: People eat copious amounts of food. Farmers need to grow copious amounts of food to feed the people. Under the pressure to produce, agriculture creates copious amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and sediment that flow into the Mississippi every year, contaminating surrounding water and the life it touches.
 


The affects of this runoff to the Gulf of Mexico are evident. The film opens up with a shot of the massive dead zone, created by excessive nutrients accumulating into the Gulf of Mexico, which feed algal blooms so large they suffocate all of the life in proximity. It also made a direct connection between Midwestern agricultural practices and the dead zone by panning to farmers in the region spraying pesticides from scenes of shrimp fishermen. According to CNN, the dead zone is an apt name for the shrimp, which attempt to escape it by jumping onshore.
 


The dead zone is the size of Massachusetts, and its’ presence is apparent to so many others, including fishermen, researchers and astronauts.
Karen Himle, vice president of University Relations, said she was concerned about “commercial interests” in the film. But I didn’t see any signs of a commercial agenda. The film highlighted environmentally conscious farms, such as Thousand Hills Cattle Company and Organic Valley, that — opposite of Levine’s assertion — make agriculture look pretty good. Showing alternative methods of farming — and which farms incorporate them — should not be confused with propaganda.
 


Minnesota is an agricultural state — one of the top six states in the nation to export products such as soybeans, corn and wheat. Within the state, nation and world, there are many hungry mouths that depend on Minnesota.
 


Farmers, such as Dan Helvig, president of the University Agriculture Education Club, are dependent on the land and its fertility. Many farmers like Helvig are interested in practicing environmentally friendly husbandry.
 


“My dream is to be able to pass along my land to a son, daughter or grandchild. I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the environment and resources I use to feed my family and the world,” he said.
 


As Levine has insisted, agriculture is doing good for society.
 


The film also acknowledged other causes of Mississippi River pollution, including urbanization, golf courses and asphalt streets.



However, the majority of the material focused on damaging agricultural practices. And rightly so; they are the primary cause of the Mississippi River’s problems. Still, that doesn’t mean we need to be apologists for the problems agricultural groups are causing — no matter how much money and support they give to the University.



The premiere Sunday was packed with students, citizens and journalists. The audience watched attentively and discovered the truth, already well documented, that certain agricultural practices damage the Mississippi River.
 


The University made the right decision in re-instating the premiere of the film. And if anything good came out of the controversy whether to delay its premier, it’s that a lot of people took notice. As President Bob Bruininks himself noted in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, “The University’s mishandling of the issue brought it enormous attention.”

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