Civil Eats » The Legacy of Big Ag Downstream: Big River (VIDEO)
What happens in Iowa doesn’t stay in Iowa. This is the lesson illuminated in Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney’s latest film,Big River, a companion to their successful film King Corn(made with director Aaron Wolff). In King Corn, Ellis and Cheney grew an acre of corn and followed it to the plate by way of the processing that brings us most of our packaged food and the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that bring us 99% of our meat. This time around, they follow the top soil, fertilizer runoff, and pesticide residues from the acre they planted into the local water system and further to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.
Big River begins during the floods that overtook Iowa in 2007, which lead Ellis and Cheney to ponder the ecological consequences of the farming methods they used on their acre of corn. To discover just how modern farming affects the local community and beyond, they hop into a canoe and move down river to visit the largest nitrate-removal facility in the world — a necessary technology used to clean Iowan’s drinking water; a fertilizer factory, which replaces the land’s natural fertility with a process that uses natural gas to extract nitrogen from the air (the result is nitrates that bind with water and are easily pulled downstream); and the fisheries of Louisiana, where a 300-mile long dead zone filled with those nitrates is fueling an algae bloom that is killing the fish.