Gagging the Mississippi

The Mississippi is a mess. I live in the agricultural, rural upper midwest, and one of the nasty surprises lurking beneath the rich green fields is that the rivers are ugly stews of fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides from agricultural runoff. We have data that it hurts people, too: premature births and birth defects show seasonal fluctuations that peak for children conceived in the spring and summer, when the chemicals are being sprayed into the air and are dribbling into the streams. The villains are agribusiness and overproduction and the corn ethanol boondoggle and horrors like the fecal lakes associated with swine farms. Louisiana’s environmental problems are partly the product of Minnesota’s toxic largesse.

It needs to be known. The Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota has been producing a documentary called Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story for the past several years, and it was supposed to have its premiere in October.

The documentary has been indefinitely postponed. Somebody doesn’t want you to see it.

Who, you might wonder, could have shut down the UM’s movie? It was the university itself. They claim it was for further scientific review, but by all accounts, this movie has been rigorously vetted throughout, and that explanation just doesn’t hold up. The other disturbing fact is that the source of the pressure seems to have been University Relations, a department not known for its attention to scientific rigor, but with a mission of responding to community interests. We’re a land-grant university, by the way, in an agricultural state.

Karen Himle is Vice President of University Relations, which is the office that determined the film needed “scientific review.” She is married to John Himle, president of Himle Horner, a public relations firm that represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. The Council is a strong proponent of ethanol and industrial farming, both of which are critiqued in the film. John Himle was also president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council from 1978 to 1982 and his organization currently serves as a “member” of the Council.

The University’s “conflict of interest” policy was called into question last year by the Minnesota Daily, which also cited Karen Himle’s summary of her outside sources of income as including Himle Horner and Nebraska farmland crops.
While Himle Horner’s client records are not public (something that has drawn the ire of some in the community as former co-owner Tom Horner is running for governor), Himle Horner was still representing the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council as recently as this summer.

So who is calling the shots at the University of Minnesota? Academics and scientists with some intellectual integrity, or lackeys of big business who care most about short-term profit, no matter the cost to the environment and public health?

Don’t bother answering, I know what the answer will be.

About the Author

This article was first published at Pharyngula and is re-posted here by permission.

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