The future of manoomin


Wild rice gets protection from the state legislature – for now

American Indians living around the Great Lakes have harvested wild rice for centuries. But only in the last few years, with advances in “genetic modification,” has it seemed possible that the crop itself might be threatened and the tradition brought to an end.

Genetic modification is a powerful technology that uses laboratory techniques to alter the genetic makeup of animals or plants at the cellular level.

Minnesota tribes and their political allies tried in 2005 and 2006 to get the Minnesota legislature to do something about the threat, but they ran into a brick wall.

This year the tribes may have hit pay dirt. The 2007 legislature passed what State Rep. Frank Moe (DFL-Bemidji) says was the first state bill to actually protect a native species from genetic modification above and beyond the normal regulatory process that the USDA has in place.

Genetic modification has already been used to increase yields and otherwise alter some crops. But the technology is in its infancy and its effects are not predictable. It clearly tightens the grip of large corporations on agriculture, and critics argue it inevitably will reduce genetic diversity.

Closer to Fond du Lac, many people warn that a genetically engineered variant on traditional wild rice, manoomin, could spread into native wild rice stands and then alter or even displace the native species.

“The pathway probably would be from pollen drift into a regular wild rice bed, and then through breeding with the native rice,” said Thomas Howes, Fond du Lac Natural Resources Program Manager. “We know that pollen carries quite a distance through wind, birds and insects.”

The biotech industry had always claimed that pollen drift is a minor problem that can be solved by “buffer zones.” Critics said that was industry hype or wishful thinking.

In the last few years, the critics have been proven right, according to Allen Richardson, who worked under contract with the White Earth Land Recovery Project to help get the new law passed. Between the 2006 and 2007 legislative sessions, one incident in particular shook the industry, according to Richardson.

“Genetically engineered white rice, which had been grown only in test plots, ended up contaminating much of the harvest of the white rice crop in the Southeastern United States – a major U.S. export,” Richardson says. “Many foreign buyers in Europe and Asia in particular wanted nothing to do with it.”

It was especially unnerving that the contamination didn’t come to light until years after the field tests had ended. That incident, several others, and recent court cases all took some wind out of the biotech industry sails, according to Richardson. That was a major reason legislation passed this year after two years of failure.

Another factor was the Democrats’ success in the 2006 elections, and the fact that they now are a majority in both the Minnesota House and Senate. Wild Rice protection became part of the DFL platform.

Proponents then began developing political support. Richardson worked local governments and community groups around the state. The Duluth and Park Rapids city councils and the St. Louis County board passed resolutions favoring wild rice protection.

Additional support came from about 50 business and environmental groups. When the vote came down in the House, it was 88-44, with virtually the entire DFL caucus supporting the bill, along with a few Republicans.

About 800 acres on the Fond du Lac Reservation are actively managed, according to Howes, the Natural Resources Program Manager.

“That’s five different lakes,” he said. “In a good year, probably about 35,000 to 40,000 pounds of rice comes off those lakes.”

The management includes the use of heavy equipment to restore and repair damage resulting from a large ditch project undertaken in the early 1900s. The intent of that project was to create more agricultural land, but instead, as the Fond du Lac band website puts it, “areas that were wetlands simply became a little less wet.”

Fond du Lac Band Member Bruce Savage has been ricing for close to 40 years, starting as a young boy who hung around the landings and helped push off canoes through the muck. Now he has a business with people working for him, and he sells rice at places like the Duluth farmer’s market and sustainable food events.

Savage is less of a traditionalist than some ricers.

“We always managed the forest, and we managed our rice. We didn’t just wander through the forest aimlessly looking for food, as the history books portray us,” he says. “Some of us to this day believe that.”

But management should not include genetic engineering, as far as Savage is concerned. As for the new legislation, he has some doubts. “I’ve heard that all they have to do is apply for the licensing and they can continue to do it,” he said.

Richardson admits the bill’s sponsors initially had doubts themselves. “We thought we were being railroaded,” he says, “but the more we looked into it, the better an idea it turned out to be.”

Although there is no mention of a “moratorium” in the new law, the language all but insures there is one. Experimenters must do an environmental impact statement. That typically takes months, and for a controversial project it may take years. All parties can weigh in.

The legislation also insures that in the meantime a state Department of Natural Resource study will clarify the extent and condition of current wild rice stands statewide, including the threats they could face and what the legislature might do in the future to protect them.

The 2007 legislation was a tradeoff that reflected the weakened position of Republicans in Minnesota as well as problems in the biotech industry nation-wide. They agreed in effect to allow the bill to go forward.

In exchange, the industry got a bill that never comes right out and prohibits or even criticizes genetic engineering, and never mentions any crop except wild rice.

With this legislation, you won’t necessarily be able to say that Minnesota is “unfriendly” to the industry. You will be able to say that it respects and protects a traditional native resource that is, after all, protected by treaty.

David Rubenstein has written on state and national political issues for more than 20 years. His work has appeared in Minnesota Law and Politics, the Star Tribune, The Nation magazine, Pulse of the Twin Cities, the New York Times and other regional and national publications.