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Floods of Troubled Water: On the Screen and on the Land

September 27, 2010Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on Floods of Troubled Water: On the Screen and on the Land

Last week, I made the notation that clear, precise thinking about the relationships between agriculture, rivers, the food we eat (and the price we pay) and the ways we talk about these things is hard to come by.  Instead, and not surprisingly in this day and age of hyper-partisanship and coarse public debate, we tend to create cartoon versions of the views we oppose and throw rocks at them.

So I was pleasantly surprised on Saturday to read three columns on the Op-Ed page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, all of which sought more nuanced ground in the debate about the University of Minnesota’s decision earlier this month not to show a new film by producers at the University’s Bell Museum.  The film, “Troubled Waters,” allegedly (I say “allegedly” because only a very few have actually seen it) takes a very tough stance on the connection between polluted runoff from conventional agricultural operations and declining water quality in the upper Mississippi River.  The University allegedly (again, as the saying goes, those who know aren’t talking and those who are talking don’t know) the University committed this “censorship” because of its ties to Big Ag.

Incidentally, the University announced last Thursday that the film’s premiere would go on as originally scheduled on Sunday October 3.  There will be two screenings, followed by a discussion.  Contact the Bell Museum to inquire about tickets.

Back to the Star Tribune Op-Ed pages.  George Boody of the Land Stewardship Project points out that the University has historically collaborated with farmers seeking innovations in agricultural practices, including those who are trying to farm with fewer chemical “inputs.”  To Boody, this collaboration provides “public goods” that meet the state’s needs for affordable food and clean water.  He is, understandably I think, dismayed at what the controversy about the film may mean as a harbinger of changed priorities at the University, toward closer alignment with those who have bigger pocketbooks.

Whitney Clark, of Friends of the Mississippi River, writes that, whatever else the controversy shows, it demonstrates that water quality in the Mississippi River is a topic that people in the state care about.  Clark presents three truths about water quality in the Mississippi:  it’s cleaner than it has been historically; most of the contamination is from agriculture; polluted urban stormwater is a not insignificant contributor to “impairments” in the Mississippi.  Clark argues that recent developments in urban stormwater management are a start down the long, complicated road to a cleaner Mississippi.

Bonnie Blodgett, who lists herself as a St. Paul writer, sees a bigger picture.  She argues that the pressure to grow more food, and to produce that food as cheaply as feasible, is part of the industrialization of agriculture that is inextricably tied to growing population, an increasing disconnect between food producers and consumers, and our society’s reluctance to face the consequences of our food and energy policies.

All of these writers make good points, and I particularly appreciate Blodgett’s bringing up the flooding last week that caused such damage across much of southern Minnesota.  Such heavy, unseasonable, rains are one of the indicators of a changing climate, according to some analysts.  I was struck by a more prosaic point though:  while there was so much energy invested in debate over the Troubled Waters film, real “troubled waters” were raging through many of our river communities.  We must apply the same level of passion and analysis to the water on the ground as we do to the water on the screen.

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