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The trouble before ‘Troubled Waters’

The documentary on Mississippi River pollution is likely not the first sensitive agricultural story that ran aground at the state’s land grant university.

A flier for the since-canceled premiere of 'Troubled Waters'
A flier for the since-canceled premiere of ‘Troubled Waters’

Last week, the Twin Cities Daily Planet broke the news that the University of Minnesota canceled the premiere of “Troubled Waters,” a documentary on Mississippi River pollution.

The U’s explanation morphed several times. The initial explanation focused on the scientific review process, but Ag School dean Al Levine eventually condemned “Troubled Waters” because it “vilified” agriculture, and University Relations Vice President Karen Himle criticized it for praising specific organic farmers.

Both critics listed ties to the Agri-Growth Council, an agriculture lobbying group, but denied agri-business had pressured them. Himle’s husband John runs the P.R. and crisis management firm Himle-Horner, which represents the Agri-Growth Council. He denies any involvement.

However, “Troubled Waters” is likely not the first sensitive agricultural story that ran aground at the state’s land grant university.

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The second time is not a charm
In January 2008, the alumni magazine “Minnesota” asked local writer Greg Breining to report on U-funded energy research. He says he turned in a story that “wasn’t an investigative or highly critical piece by any means.” Among his subjects: David Tilman, a University ecologist who has criticized crop-based ethanol’s environmental effects, and who appears in “Troubled Waters.”

Breining had profiled Tilman for a 2007 “Minnesota” story entitled “Five Reasons Corn Ethanol Won’t Save the Planet.

That unsparing and extensive piece included passages such as:

Corn … is addicted to chemicals. … Trouble is, these chemicals don’t stay put … Runoff of soil and phosphorus causes algae blooms in nearby lakes. Nitrogen and phosphorus from the Midwest Farm Belt flow down the Mississippi River, feeding algae growth and decomposition that create “hypoxia” — an oxygen-depleted “dead zone” roughly the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.

After the story ran, Breining says, “From what I understand, there were unhappy people at the U, though I never dealt with any fallout directly.”

Breining received his the energy-research assignment in January 2008. The following month, the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council announced they would suspend $1.5 million in grants; they cited a new Tilman study critical of ethanol and soy-based biodiesel.

The group vowed to relent only after meeting with Levine, who now criticizes the documentary that includes Tilman.

Breining says when he filed the energy-research piece, “I also included a few grafs about a paper Tilman and associates had just published. The research undermined corn ethanol on an even more fundamental basis than Tilman’s previous work. It seemed like important research that had garnered a lot of play nationally. I couldn’t very well ignore it; nor did I want to.”

In Breining’s story, Tilman also specifically referenced soy.

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Breining says after he submitted the piece, he “heard there were big discussions about it. Eventually, it was spiked. To my knowledge, scientific accuracy was not an issue.”

Breining — who still writes regularly for “Minnesota” — emphasizes that he never heard the specific objections, nor does he know who was responsible for killing the story.

‘Definitely not common’
Phil Esten — CEO of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association that oversees “Minnesota” — says the story’s demise had nothing to do with Tilman, whom the magazine has been featured “many times.”

Esten is less specific about the cause of death. He says the Alumni Association, not the U, canceled the piece. He says editor Shelly Fling (who is on leave) recalled it as “an evolving story … later canceled because the timing didn’t make sense,” adding “this is a common occurrence in publishing.”

However, Esten acknowledges something that was “definitely not common”: the story “was requested for review by the Vice President of University Relations” — Himle.

Via spokesman Dan Wolter, Himle says she “does not recall reviewing this specific piece, as she was in Norway at the time. Having been included on feedback provided by someone else, she did ask that whatever was published be balanced as this is an institutional publication.”

Wolter adds, “It’s important to note that it is a function of her job to ensure that institutional communications provide balance (which is different than academic works).”

It’s true that no one should mistake an alumni magazine for a scientific publication — or a documentary where U overseers have invoked scientific review. However, Himle also used the term “balance” to explain why the documentary premiere was canceled.

What was written
At this point, we don’t know if the original version of “Troubled Waters” will see the light of day, but Breining did pass along his 2008 Tilman paragraphs:

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It’s no secret among scientists that corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel, two mainstays of America’s current bio-energy industry, won’t replace oil and other fossil fuels. We can’t produce enough corn or soybeans, even if we grew them on every available acre.

As if that weren’t limitation enough, in February several Minnesota researchers including world-renowned University ecologist David Tilman threw down another challenge to the biofuel industry and researchers. In a report published in Science, the scientists concluded that conventional biofuel production on prime agricultural lands produced vast amounts of greenhouse gases — a “carbon debt” that would take decades or centuries to pay down. Since preventing global warming has been one of the prime reasons to move from fossil-fuels to renewables such as ethanol and biodiesel, the study challenged the very foundations of the industry.

The problem: The current demand for biofuels is causing the destruction of forests and grasslands, whether it is the clearing of rain forest to plant sugarcane in Brazil, or plowing Conservation Reserve Program grasslands to plant corn in southern Minnesota.

“The dilemma is when you clear land you release immense amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” said Tilman. “Look at a tree. And a lot of the land being cleared is forest, including tropical rainforest. Huge, huge trees. If you get rid of the water in a tree—just dry it out—half of the weight that is left is carbon. And all of that carbon become carbon dioxide once that tree has been cut down.”

The challenge: To develop biofuels and other forms of alternative energy that don’t clear or plow up new land. “From what we now know, I say there are still can be and should be a very viable and vital biofuels industry, but we just have to be wise in how and where we grow that biomass,” Tilman said. …