E-mail: An ag official's critical input into Troubled Waters before its release

What you should know

Both the Land Stewardship Project and the Minnesota Daily have reported on an e-mail that reflects outsider input — if not influence — from an agricultural interest into the editing of Troubled Waters, the controversial environmental documentary on agricultural pollution of the Mississippi River.

As you’ll remember, the University of Minnesota last month canceled its debut, and after a public outcry, went ahead with it. Some have speculated whether agricultural influence — or mere fear of it — might have prompted the original cancellation.

According to the two reports above, Kristin Weeks Duncanson, vice chair of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council’s board of directors, wrote Bell officials in April after reviewing a copy of the film she’d received from U of M ag Dean Al Levine. (She had not been on the original list of reviewers, but may have been part of the university’s damage control plans that included informing the ag community.)

Background tip: She may have been linked to such criticism before. Duncanson, the Land Stewardship Project writes, used to be president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, which in 2008 temporarily canceled a $1.5 million grant to the U of M after being upset over research that showed biofuels’ negative environmental consequences. (MinnPost’s Dave Brauer recently wrote about that episode here.)

In this case, Duncanson apparently didn’t call for the film to be pulled, but said it needed to some “tweaking.” She had a number of issues with it, including accuracy of data and assertions in the film, focus on organic farming, as well as the exclusion of certain angles and information such as conventional farmers’ efforts to be environmentally friendly.

Among her concerns:

“The film points at the Farm Bill and government policy as the root to all evil when it comes to the problems with the river. … The comments regarding the Farm Bill could be very dangerous for the University.”

Also:

Once again we hear the joy and salvation of the organic farmer and grass-fed beef to solve the nutrition problems of people and containment problems in the river. Although there is certainly a place for these types of operations in the food system, they will not feed all the (mouths) of a hungry world.

About agriculture’s reaction:

Don’t get me started on the (U of M Professor David) Tillman comments. No matter what that guy says, the Corn and Soybean folks will be upset. … Who is the audience? Will this piece have the University’s name on it? I am very concerned about the piece.

Her conclusion:

Can it be fixed? Yes, point out the hard work conventional farmers do to be good stewards and how most farmers do not like to use government programs for the most part …

She then suggests other points to include.

You can read the e-mail — part of 2,500 pages of correspondence released by the U under a data request — here.

  • Anonymous

    Then Minnesota Daily’s got a great piece up on this, link = http://bit.ly/cxKn7o .

    My comments:

    Chilling comments to see:

    “The comments regarding the Farm Bill could be very dangerous for the University.”

    Is this a threat from an ag lobbyist? A warning? What exactly?

    Levine’s statement that no one told him he couldn’t share it are directly contradicted by the executive producer of the film.

    They discussed a preliminary viewing of the film – hosted by among others, Levine. Although this did not happen because the film was canceled, it is a serious concern.

    “Remember, I wear many hats,” she said. “I don’t see it as a conflict at all.”

    Wow, just wow. This statement is very common among people within and without the University who just don’t seem to be able to get their arms around the concept of conflict of interest or the appearance thereof. As long as folks like these are pulling the strings, we are in big trouble.

    And one final amazing statement of rationalization by Levine:

    “Levine equated previewing the film to his experience reading academic papers before they appear in a journal to prepare for any negative outside reactions.”

    Dean Levine, are you serious? You are NOT supposed to be sharing or reading papers before they are published in a journal. If you are a reviewer for a journal you are supposed to be keeping your review confidential. To compare reading academic papers with preparing for negative outside reaction to a film is an absurd comparison for you to be making.

    This situation smells like a liquid hog manure lake. It calls for outside investigation because too many members of the the administration, from Morrill Hall down through deans, are involved in what certainly appears to be censorship.

    I’ve suggested a mechanism for outside review on the Star-Tribune Community voices site:
    A Call For An Independent Investigation of Troubled Watersgate at the University of Minnesota
    link: http://bit.ly/b26CF1

  • Northland Observer

    Again, much ado about nothing. Honest commentary from one corner of the ag industry. And, as is usually the case, Gleason speaks of things on the other campus that he knows little-to-nothing about. He’s in search of a smoking gun and finds it in everything he sees, but is typically unable to connect any dots, which leads for calls of “outside investigation.” Blah blah blah.

    • Anonymous

      I can read, Observer. And you’ve really said nothing here. Did you see the Star-Tribune editorial? Much ado about nothing? It’s not even necessary to connect the dots. As Keith Goetzman put it:

      “Finally, a recent blowup at the University of Minnesota carried another strong whiff of Big Ag influence. An environmental documentary film, Troubled Waters, that ascribed water pollution in part to farming practices was pulled from a public television broadcast amid criticism from a university dean that it “vilified agriculture.” Ultimately, the film was reinstated after a public backlash to the move—and the university vice president who canceled it publicly apologized. Paula Crossfield covered the controversy at the blog Civil Eats (later reposted at Grist and Huffington Post), although Twin Cities Daily Planet reporter Molly Priesmeyer broke the story and stayed on it.

      It’s not lost on me that several of these conflicts of interest occurred at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. If I were the type of person who displayed my degrees on the wall, my B.A. from the university would be losing a bit of its luster right now. University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said after the film imbroglio that academic freedom is the “cornerstone of all great American universities.” I see signs of that cornerstone crumbling—and I hope that hard-working journalists keep drawing attention to it before there’s a complete structural failure.”

      Just more blah, blah, blah, Observer?