Points North: Troubled Waters

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 The University of Minnesota made headlines recently when officials withheld the premiere screening of “Troubled Waters,” a new documentary chronicling the effects of agriculture and urban development on the water quality of Mississippi River and how Minnesota’s polluted runoff contributes to an oxygen-depleted “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The action took many by surprise, because the documentary was produced by an acclaimed filmmaker and was funded in large part with proceeds from the state lottery.

 
Since the film was factually accurate and produced with public funds, university officials relented in the glare of media scrutiny and reversed their decision, allowing “Troubled Waters” to be shown. Ironically, the film’s premiere was Sunday, October 3, the same weekend as Minnesota’s duck hunting opener. Ducks, too, are affected by the state’s troubled waters and have declined significantly over the last 20 years. 
 
Prior to the 2010 opener, the Minnesota DNR issued a press release which essentially said to hunters, “Don’t get your hopes up.” Last year’s hunting season was considered one of the poorest ever and DNR officials don’t expect this year to be any better. Once a national leader as a haven for nesting waterfowl and as a home to enthusiastic duck hunters, Minnesota has fallen from grace. Today it is a national example of how duck hunting deteriorates when wetland habitat is lost to drainage and development.
 
On the same weekend, the 25th Farm Aid concert was held in Milwaukee and broadcast live via satellite. Started by singer Willie Nelson during the farm crisis of the 1980s, the Farm Aid promotes family farming and the production of “good food.” On stage, the performers encouraged the audience to become aware of the damage wrought upon our lands and waters by factory-like agricultural production and to support the family farmers who are trying to provide an alternative to “factory farming” that is healthier for consumers and for the environment.
 
“Troubled Waters,” the Minnesota DNR and Farm Aid target different audiences with essentially the same message. A growing number of Americans are becoming aware that the health of the land and of people are closely linked. While duck hunters have long been organized beneath a conservation banner to protect and restore the continent’s waterfowl habitat, more recently, mainstream Americans have learned about the health risks associated with eating processed food and meat produced in close-confinement facilities. And once aware of the risks, they begin seeking better things to eat.
 
While the advocates of ducks and healthy food have much in common, they have yet to stitch together a common message, much less a workable vision for restoring clean water and wildlife habitat while transforming farming to produce better food and a better life for farmers. If such a message resonates with the mainstream, the advocates of ducks, clean water and better food might be able to make a real difference across the nation’s agricultural landscape. Without a groundswell of mainstream support, their individual efforts are unlikely to succeed, because the deck is stacked against them.
 
Duck advocates in Minnesota are well aware the political system favors Big Agriculture. Often, whatever is accomplished within the realm of farmland conservation only occurs if Big Ag allows it to happen. In fact, some prominent conservation organizations seem to have decided it is in their best interest to sleep with the enemy by “partnering” with Big Ag to raise funds or promote their programs. You can bet Big Ag gets what it pays for from these “partnerships.”
 
So far, the advocates within the Good Food Movement seem to be positioning themselves as the counterpoint to Big Ag by telling Americans to seek and purchase food grown locally, humanely and, when possible, organically, even if it costs more to do so. They are also linking cheap, processed food to America’s epidemic of obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. This message, which was expressed by the entertainers at Farm Aid, is gaining traction with mainstream consumers, who are beginning to demand access to better food from grocery stores and restaurants.
 
It is fair to say the Good Food Movement has grown large enough to worry Big Ag. As more Americans become aware of how their food is produced and how difficult it is to find alternatives to “factory food,” they will also demand government policies that encourage production of the food they want to eat. Such policies could disrupt the flow of government subsidies to Big Ag and perhaps upset its monopolistic control of the nation’s food supply. You can bet Big Ag won’t let that happen without a fight.
 
Politically, the good food advocates are outgunned, because both political parties snuggle comfortably within the pockets of Big Ag. The real battle will be fought by consumers in grocery store checkout lines and on restaurant tables. Will the outcome of this battle make a difference for ducks? It can, if the advocates of good food and habitat conservation join forces to explain how healthy eating can contribute to a healthy environment. It is hard to think of a better way to gain mainstream support for habitat conservation.

Airdate: October 8, 2010

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