An intimate look at the farmers, ranchers, and businesses that are creating…
Following up on their Peabody Award-winning documentary KING CORN , Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis have returned to Iowa with a new mission: to investigate the environmental impact their acre of corn has had on the people and places downstream.
In a journey that spans from the heartland to the Gulf of Mexico, Ian and Curt trade their combine for a canoe, and set out to see the big world their little acre of corn has touched. On their trip, flashbacks to the pesticides they sprayed, the fertilizers they injected, and the soil they plowed now lead to new questions, explored by new experts in new places. Half of Iowa's topsoil, they learn, has been washed out to sea. Fertilizer runoff has spawned a hypoxic 'dead zone' in the Gulf. And back at their acre, the herbicides they used are blamed for a cancer cluster that reaches all too close to home.
A lively investigation and a worthy follow-up, BIG RIVER grows to ask is industrial agriculture worth its hidden costs?
'A sharp and clever reminder that nothing ever really goes away, certainly not the soup of chemicals we're pouring on our fields.' Bill McKibben, Author, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
'In Walden, Henry David Thoreau defines the `true cost of a thing' as `the amount of life exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.' With characteristically understated eloquence, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis illuminate the devastating downstream consequences of growing corn, the central commodity of the American food system. After witnessing these health and environmental effects, viewers may well conclude that the `true costs' are too much for us or our children to bear.' Warren Belasco, Professor of American Studies, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and Author, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food
'Big River tells 'the rest of the story.' King Corn helped us to understand how growing corn in Iowa is not particularly profitable for farmers. Big River takes us down stream from the farm to better understand additional unintended consequences--of growing as much corn as possible as--especially to the quality of our water. I appreciated the fact that Big River does not blame the farmer for this ecological disaster. As Paul Thompson has indicated, farmers are now forced into a system which requires them to 'produce as much as possible, regardless of the cost' and Big River points out some of the costs to the farmer, to the environment, and to our communities...We have all been living as if nature's sinks were limitless and they are now full, so we have to redesign our human economies, including agriculture, to function within the limits of nature's resources and nature's absorption capacity. Anything short of that will only degrade our big rivers even more--to the detriment of the health of all living species--including our own. Big River begins to help us understand that.' Frederick Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and President of Kirschenmann Family Farms
'[Big River] raises profound questions about the current petroleum-based agriculture on which Americans rely for most of their food. With rising petroleum prices, widespread environmental problems, and climate change we will need to rethink the very foundations of modern agriculture. It is simply too important to be left to the experts. This film provides a good starting point for public engagement.' Lawrence Busch, University Distinguished Professor, Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards, Michigan State University and Professor of Standards and Society, Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, Lancaster University
'King Corn uses an acre of corn in Iowa to explain how our quest for cheap calories diminishes the quality of our food. Big River uses a canoe trip down the Mississippi to explain how millions of acres of Iowa corn diminish the quality of life of those who live downwind and downstream. Together they make a compelling case for radical changes in what we eat and the ways we produce food.' John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, Author, Sustainable Capitalism, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture
'This film is accessible to all audiences and would serve well as a stand-alone film or used in conjunction with King Corn...Demonstrate[s] the dialectic relationships among multiple stakeholders affected by the process and the effects of industrial farming--including those who have no connection with farming. This over-arching theme provides ample opportunity to engage undergraduate students in discussion about a number of fundamental issues in environmental sociology, social psychology, social inequalities, and introductory courses in sociology touching on any of these areas.' Ryan Kelty, Washington College, Teaching Sociology
'Big River provides a concise overview of the environmental and economic factors at work in American agriculture and a compelling look at the long term consequences of maintaining the status quo. King Corn and Big River complement each other, with King Corn providing the historical and political context for current agricultural practices and Big River showing the personal and societal costs of these agricultural practices.' Janis Tyhurst, George Fox University, Educational Media Reviews Online
'A provocative film that begs extended discussions of global capital, power, labor, commodity fetishism and governmentality. After all, as the last farmer interviewed reminds us, 'if you are not aware of everything that stands behind all that agriculture, you can live with the illusion that there's nothing wrong.' Suitable for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of food, environmental anthropology, and economic anthropology, as well as general audiences.' Susan Falls, Savannah College of Art and Design, Anthropology Review Database
'Viewers are asked to consider the long-range consequences of using chemicals and the resulting loss of human and animal life...Science and current events classes can utilize this program, and it should be added to all environmental collections.' Patricia Ann Owens, Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, School Library Journal
'What happens in Iowa doesn't stay in Iowa. This is the lesson illuminated in Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney's latest film...This time around, they follow the top soil, fertilizer run-off, and pesticide residues from the acre they planted into the local water system and further to the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone...It seems that the system that pushes us to try and grow as much corn as possible, no matter the costs, might just have human lives on its hands.' Paula Crossfield, Civil Eats
'Cheney and Ellis narrate, but there are moments when they just silently paddle a canoe or listen to experts. The men's silence is powerful...[Big River] successfully re-creates the earlier film's [King Corn] tone, which is calm, curious and, above all, quietly despairing.' Isthmus
Woolf, Aaron (film director)
Woolf, Aaron (film producer)
Woolf, Aaron (cinematographer)
Woolf, Aaron (screenwriter)
Ellis, Curt (film producer)
Ellis, Curt (screenwriter)
Cheney, Ian (cinematographer)
Cheney, Ian (screenwriter)
Miller, Jeffrey K. (screenwriter)
King Corn : Produced and directed by Aaron Woolf; co-produced by Curt Ellis, Ian Cheney; cameras, Sam Cullman, Ian Cheney, Aaron Woolf; edited by Jeffrey K. Miller; original music by the WoWz, Bo Ramsey, Spencer Chakedis.
Distributor subjectsAgriculture; Anthropology; Biology; Chemistry; Ecology; Environment; Geography; Health; Marine Biology; Pollution; Rivers; Toxic Chemicals; Water
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Last spring, massive brains
flooded the Midwest.
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One of the towns hit worst
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was Greene, Iowa - a place my best
friend Ian and I knew pretty well.
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We had gone there after college
to make a movie, a documentary
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about the American diet. I\'m
moving in from Boston to Iowa.
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For our film, we had grown an
acre of corn, on land owned by
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Livon and Chuck Pyatt. Learned how to
farm with the help of our neighbors.
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Well, you wanna go another round?
Yeah, but slower, maybe.
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And had followed our harvest into corn
sweetened sodas and corn fed meat.
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We thought that 10,000
pounds of food wheat grown
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was the end of the story.
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But the floods made us wonder:
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what if something besides our
harvest had left the farm?
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There we go. There we go.
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Is the water clean? No, there\'s always
stuff in there. You\'re gonna find stuff…
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You\'re gonna find, uh… particularly from
herbicides, you\'re gonna find pretty all of them,
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whatever they break down to, you\'re gonna
find it in there. We met up with our
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old landlord, Chuck Pyatt, at a water
testing station, not far from our acre.
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What are we doing to the environment?
You know, this is a big question.
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And I think it\'s in everybody\'s mind. I think most farmers realize
that, uh… they\'re bothered of some of the long-range consequences.
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There\'s a lot of residue that\'s gathered
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in our… our water supplies and
everything else out here.
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During our year in Iowa, we attended our
one-acre farm, the way a typical farmer
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may attend a thousand
acres - with tractors,
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fertilizers and chemical sprays.
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Racing to beat a rainstorm,
we\'d sprayed our acre
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with a mix of pesticides with
names like Atrazine and Liberty.
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But not everything we had
sprayed stayed on the farm.
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The mixture of chemicals
that you applied, umm…
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sounded to me like it might include 40 or 50 different
compounds. And your decision to spray the material,
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uh… on one acre, really leaves
other people vulnerable,
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if the chemical has the potential
to migrate into their environment.
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John Wargo studies pesticides and
environmental toxins at Yale,
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and has served as a science advisor
to the EPA. In the case of Atrazine,
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uh… there are… there are a couple of key concerns, and… and
one is that, there is some evidence of carcinogenicity.
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Umm… And it\'s a very mobile chemical.
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Running alongside the water
testing station was Flood Creek,
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which drains 95,000 acres,
including our old farm.
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Around the Corn Belt, waterways like
this one, have become contaminated,
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often because of the way herbicides
are designed it to work.
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Many chemicals, like Atrazine,
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sit on top of the soil
until rain dissolves them
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and roots drink them up. Corn plants
are able to process Atrazine,
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but weeds die.
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And some of the herbicide that isn\'t consumed, stays
dissolved in the water that flows off the farm.
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Our acre\'s runoff in Flood Creek, empties into the
Shell Rock River, which flows through downtown Greene.
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Along the way, Iowa\'s herbicides make
their way into the aquifers as well.
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Around the country,
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33 million Americans have been exposed
to Atrazine in drinking water.
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There are millions of people that, uh… are
exposed to it routinely in the Midwest.
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And most people don\'t know that they\'re being
exposed to the… to the uh… the material.
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Southeast of Greene - the
runoff from our old farm
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enters the Cedar River, the
watershed for 2.8 million acres.
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In our great-grandparents time, you
could see down to the river bottom.
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Now the water is cloudy and brown.
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This year the Midwest had
some tremendous rainstorms.
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These storms occurred in May and June.
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And when we have row crops, what do we
have covering the soil surface? Nothing.
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When we had grown our corn, we plowed until
the soil on our acre was as fine as powder,
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leaving the bare dirt
exposed to the elements.
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You know, if you look at
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uh… a satellite photo of Iowa in April,
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it\'s an awful lot of brown
and the rains are coming.
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It doesn\'t get nice and green from
those satellite photos until July.
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And then, at the time of harvest, back in
October, it\'s going back to brown again.
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Before our great-grandparents came to Iowa,
most of the state was covered year round
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in grasses, which held
the topsoil in place.
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Your acre would have been native prairie.
The vegetative cover would have been there
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and the roots would have been there.
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I come here in one summer, the grass was
high enough, the people on horseback
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could barely meet without seeing each
other. But it was all pretty grass.
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Chuck Pyatt still owns a piece of land
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that\'s been left untouched by the plow.
And it\'s native prairie,
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it\'s never been broke right in here. This land is
wet as it looked years and years ago, no different.
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For centuries, the roots of
Chuck\'s prairie have held
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this patch of topsoil in place, but
they\'ve also been doing something else.
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As generations of prairie
plants have grown, died,
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decayed and grown again, they\'ve moved
millions of pounds of carbon out of the air
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and into the ground.
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Worldwide, soils now store more
carbon than the atmosphere.
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Building up that carbon-rich soil
would help combat global warming.
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But erosion can send the carbon
back into the atmosphere and cause
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the land to lose its fertility.
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We know in the state of Iowa,
we\'ve lost half the topsoil
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in approximately 100 years of farming.
Now, another 100 years,
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and we\'re down to nothing but subsoil. That topsoil,
that top few inches, is what\'s really important.
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for the erosion of the soil\'s natural fertility,
corn farmers now rely on phosphate fertilizer
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from mines across the southeast
and anhydrous ammonia,
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some of which comes from factories in Iowa.
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From this control room, we\'re controlling the
process of making around 1100 tons a day
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of anhydrous ammonia. It all starts
right here. This is the kitchen?
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This is the kitchen. That\'s right.
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This is a half liter of anhydrous ammonia. If
this were in a regular room with all the hoods,
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we would have to evacuate the building. It
would be that strong. No, I… I\'m serious,
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it would be. This is exactly
what you put on your crop,
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on your agro crop. When we grew our corn,
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we had injected our acre with
130 pounds of fertilizer -
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giving us the promise of a huge yield, by
giving our corn easy access to nitrogen.
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We have three primary raw materials
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for the production of ammonia. Air, from
the air we breathe in the atmosphere,
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air, which contains around 79% nitrogen,
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and that\'s where the nitrogen
source comes from, stain,
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and then natural gas,
which is methane or CH4.
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About 80% of the cost of producing
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ammonia is in the cost of natural gas.
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To produce enough fertilizer
for our one acre field,
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the furnaces at Terra Industries burned
2,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
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Anhydrous ammonia can be
an expensive ingredient
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in Iowa\'s abundant harvest,
especially, because it has a tendency
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to leave the farm. Ammonia has
a great affinity for water.
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A little bit of water will
give of a lot ammonia,
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there is excessive ranging power
when you start to get runoff,
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it will take some of that nitrogen with it.
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The runoff from our old farm
eventually enters the Iowa River,
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which parallels the Raccoon
River across much of the state.
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Together, they drain more
than five million acres.
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You take a water sample from the
river, it\'s gonna be cloudy
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looking to the uh… average person, then
what you\'re seeing in that cloudiness is
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predominantly dirt and decaying vegetation.
What you don\'t see
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are the dissolved chemicals, you don\'t
see Atrazine, you don\'t see any nitrate,
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you don\'t see those things in
the water, but they\'re there.
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The Des Moines Water Works is the agency
responsible for providing clean drinking water
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to 400,000 residents of central Iowa.
This is the filter building
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where the water is filtered. It
flows through this bed of sand.
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Most of the topsoil and pesticides
found in the river can be removed
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by the kind of treatment other cities use.
But in recent years,
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water utilities in the Corn Belt have had
a more difficult problem to deal with.
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We constructed in uh… 1992, put
online the world\'s largest
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nitrate removal facility, because
back really in the late \'70s,
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uh… we recognized the trend of
increasing nitrate in the river.
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So, this is water that is not
ready to be consumed yet.
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And so this is the in-pipe, going into the nitrate
removal vessel. Right now, we\'re standing
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in the middle of the largest nitrate
rural facility in the world.
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This graph is the average
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uh… nitrate concentration in our finished drinking
water, coming from this plant, dating back to 1931.
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And you can see how it started
to increase, there in the \'70s,
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with the use of nitrogen
fertilizers in Iowa.
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Right now, the… the primary
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uh… concern is \"blue baby syndrome.\" Consuming
high nitrate water will tend to strip
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oxygen out of the blood. And that
produces this \"blue baby syndrome.\"
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Since the 1940s,
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scientists have warned that exposure to excess
nitrates can inhibit oxygen circulation
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in an infant\'s blood. Without the
nitrate removal plant in Des Moines,
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children in central Iowa
would face a higher risk of
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hospitalization or death.
Anywhere where we have
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contaminated water uh… with… uh… with
high nitrogen, you have that potential.
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The Des Moines drinking
water plant only treats
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a small portion of the water that flows
by its doors. So the vast majority of
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Iowa\'s nitrates continue
on to the Mississippi.
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Driving South, we passed seven states which grew
a combined total of 18 million acres of corn.
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Traveling alongside as now, was the
pesticide runoff and eroded topsoil
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from farms and lawns covering 40%
of the continental United States.
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We followed the nitrates in the
river, which in peak season
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reach almost eight million pounds
a day - to the Gulf of Mexico,
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and a part of the coastline
called \"The Dead Zone.\"
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Well, we\'re in Cocodrie, Louisiana.
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What affects the Gulf of Mexico is the dissolved
nutrients, the dissolved organic nitrogen
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and the nitrate and the phosphate. And
what\'s happened in the Gulf of Mexico
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is that the amount of
nutrients has increased
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to the point that the algae are growing
more than they did historically,
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to end up with a deficit
of oxygen on the bottom.
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And that\'s what happens in the Gulf. If there\'s
not enough oxygen, the fish can\'t live.
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You won\'t see crabs, snails.
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You won\'t see any shrimp, you won\'t see any
red fish, you won\'t see any red snapper,
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you won\'t see any stingrays,
you won\'t see any sharks.
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Yeah, that\'s probably why we ain\'t catching
good shrimp anymore, \'cause it\'s a dead zone.
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Can you see it in the water?
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The water is like a red color, you know, when
you\'re pulling… A red color. Red color, dead.
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When you pull through it the fish
and the shrimp, all are dead in it.
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We\'re working for nothing.
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In communities along the
Gulf Coast, bringing in
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an abundant catch of shrimp is as
important culturally and economically
00:18:15.000 --> 00:18:19.999
as a 200 bushel corn
harvest is in the Midwest.
00:18:20.000 --> 00:18:24.999
Delegations of shrimp fishermen
have begun traveling to Iowa
00:18:25.000 --> 00:18:29.999
to meet with farmers and encourage
them to use less fertilizer.
00:18:30.000 --> 00:18:34.999
But one farmer told me that he yielded
00:18:35.000 --> 00:18:39.999
400 bushels of corn ton acre in Iowa. I
asked him, why did he have to do that?
00:18:40.000 --> 00:18:44.999
He said, to use less land
and produce more corn.
00:18:45.000 --> 00:18:49.999
What we\'re trying to say to the farmers is,
00:18:50.000 --> 00:18:54.999
if you have to survive, if you have
to yield so much corn to the acre,
00:18:55.000 --> 00:18:59.999
fine, we\'ve got to find out a
way that we can also have.
00:19:00.000 --> 00:19:04.999
You\'re passing down your
environmental problem down to me.
00:19:05.000 --> 00:19:09.999
00:19:10.000 --> 00:19:14.999
Where the Mississippi emptied into the
Gulf, we could see the legacy our abundant
00:19:15.000 --> 00:19:19.999
corn field had sent down river.
00:19:20.000 --> 00:19:24.999
millions of pounds of grain were
leaving America for export.
00:19:25.000 --> 00:19:29.999
But below the surface,
that food had other costs.
00:19:30.000 --> 00:19:38.000
00:19:45.000 --> 00:19:49.999
See, the… the problem is to
get out all the problems.
00:19:50.000 --> 00:19:54.999
It has to with the scale
in which it\'s… it\'s done.
00:19:55.000 --> 00:19:59.999
You can get away with doing the
stupid things if your scale is small.
00:20:00.000 --> 00:20:04.999
00:20:05.000 --> 00:20:09.999
But, given the scale, uh… of corn in Iowa,
00:20:10.000 --> 00:20:14.999
that\'s one reason we got a dead zone.
Fossil fuel dependency,
00:20:15.000 --> 00:20:19.999
chemical dependency, soil
erosion, I mean, it\'s all there.
00:20:20.000 --> 00:20:24.999
00:20:25.000 --> 00:20:29.999
The way we grew our corn, touched people in
places thousands of miles away from Iowa.
00:20:30.000 --> 00:20:34.999
00:20:35.000 --> 00:20:39.999
In thinking back, we began to wonder if
the way we farmed could have contributed
00:20:40.000 --> 00:20:44.999
to another tragedy, one that
had hit much closer to home.
00:20:45.000 --> 00:20:49.999
She\'s lost her voice before we went.
00:20:50.000 --> 00:20:54.999
And then it came from back, and she\'s like, \"Oh, I\'m okay, you
know, I\'m all right. I just want to go.\" We got down there
00:20:55.000 --> 00:20:59.999
and I\'m still bothering with
that she\'d diagnosed then with a
00:21:00.000 --> 00:21:04.999
large B-cell lymphoma. Not
long after we moved to Iowa,
00:21:05.000 --> 00:21:09.999
Livon Pyatt was diagnosed
with non-Hodgkin\'s lymphoma.
00:21:10.000 --> 00:21:14.999
Over half of the farmer wives, in the… uh… if you
drew a five-mile radius around us right in here,
00:21:15.000 --> 00:21:19.999
are already dead from cancer, over a half.
00:21:20.000 --> 00:21:24.999
00:21:25.000 --> 00:21:29.999
A non-Hodgkin\'s lymphoma
has uh… been detected
00:21:30.000 --> 00:21:34.999
in… in uh… a higher level
uh… in populations
00:21:35.000 --> 00:21:39.999
that umm… include farmers, uh… that
00:21:40.000 --> 00:21:44.999
uh… routinely applied pesticides.
00:21:45.000 --> 00:21:49.999
The millions and millions of acres of land
are sprayed uh… by the compounds that… that…
00:21:50.000 --> 00:21:54.999
that you sprayed. The
probability that that…
00:21:55.000 --> 00:21:59.999
uh… farmers and their families are
exposed to this is significant and
00:22:00.000 --> 00:22:04.999
that can convey a very significant risk.
00:22:05.000 --> 00:22:09.999
It was the week we harvested our
corn that Livon Pyatt died.
00:22:10.000 --> 00:22:18.000
00:22:25.000 --> 00:22:29.999
That year, our acre was one in a sea of
70 million acres grown in the same way.
00:22:30.000 --> 00:22:34.999
00:22:35.000 --> 00:22:39.999
And five years later, there
were nearly 90 million.
00:22:40.000 --> 00:22:44.999
Why do we do what we do?
Farmers are not bad people.
00:22:45.000 --> 00:22:49.999
Farmers don\'t want… When you\'re growing your
acre of corn, you didn\'t want to damage
00:22:50.000 --> 00:22:54.999
or have a negative impact on people
to receive the water off your land.
00:22:55.000 --> 00:22:59.999
As long as we continue to
get more economic return
00:23:00.000 --> 00:23:04.999
by adding more and more
herbicides, more pesticides,
00:23:05.000 --> 00:23:09.999
more fertilizers, then the cost
of the damage that we incur,
00:23:10.000 --> 00:23:14.999
we\'ll do it, we\'ll do it.
There\'s no doubt in my mind
00:23:15.000 --> 00:23:19.999
that… that modern pesticides
uh… have produced
00:23:20.000 --> 00:23:24.999
terrific gains in productivity. And the
real dilemma is trying to figure out
00:23:25.000 --> 00:23:29.999
how to get the benefits of the new technologies
while minimizing the adverse effects.
00:23:30.000 --> 00:23:34.999
00:23:35.000 --> 00:23:39.999
Well, I think we\'re being
affected probably more out here
00:23:40.000 --> 00:23:44.999
than people that are eating the food.
And that is the chemicals… You know,
00:23:45.000 --> 00:23:49.999
I lost my wife to cancer last year.
And uh… so…
00:23:50.000 --> 00:23:54.999
What… What\'s long-range consequences of using
all these chemicals that we use, you know?
00:23:55.000 --> 00:23:59.999
00:24:00.000 --> 00:24:04.999
I go by, uh… build a corn
looks beautiful to me.
00:24:05.000 --> 00:24:09.999
You know, that… that comes from
having grown up on the Kansas farm.
00:24:10.000 --> 00:24:14.999
If you\'re not aware as to
what it is that stands behind
00:24:15.000 --> 00:24:19.999
all of that agriculture, you
can live with the illusion
00:24:20.000 --> 00:24:24.999
that there\'s nothing wrong.
00:24:25.000 --> 00:24:33.000
00:25:15.000 --> 00:25:23.000
Distributor: Bullfrog Films
Length: 27 minutes
Grade: 9-12, College, Adults
Closed Captioning: Available
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Vividly reveals the dysfunctionality of the industrialized world food…
Rachel Carson's love for the natural world and her fight to defend it.