1.Protecting a sacred resource
2.Patents on taro protested
EXCERPTS: It's that research into rice genetics that most frightens Ojibwe ricers. They fear that genetically modified rice could infect their manoomin - a gift to them from the Creator - and forever end its bounty. Their fears are hardly irrational or misplaced. (item 1)
Ritte has gone to battle with the university before over the genetic modification of taro. As a result, the university agreed in May to stop experiments on Hawaiian varieties of taro because of cultural concerns that it was tampering with native species. (item 2)
1.Protecting a sacred resource
St Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 15, 2006
To the Anishinabe of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the plant is called manoomin or mahnomen. We know it in English as wild rice, though that black grain we buy at the grocery store often isn't. Wild, that is.
Much of the "wild" rice sold in local stores is commercially grown in rice paddies, mostly in northern California. Unfortunately, Minnesota's official state grain and a major source of income for Minnesota's native people has little to protect it from commercial interests that would trade on the good name of one of our state's natural treasures.
A state labeling law - which grew out of a lawsuit in the 1980s - requires that any wild rice sold as such in Minnesota must contain at least 51 percent naturally grown wild rice. That still means up to 49 percent of your wild rice could be paddy-grown. And nothing stands in the way of commercial producers who oxymoronically label their 100 percent paddy-grown rice as "cultivated wild rice" and use Indian names and imagery to mislead shoppers.
"We can't compete with the combines," said Winona LaDuke, founding director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project. "The paddy rice pretty much trashed our (reservation) economies. The people on the reservations relied on the rice for income. We have a huge wild rice resource but we can't compete."
Among the factors that tilt the competitive playing field in favor of large commercial ricing interests are state and federal water subsidies in California and research at public universities, including the University of Minnesota, that leads to the development of new strains of rice that benefit large commercial farmers, but could harm native wild rice crops.
It's that research into rice genetics that most frightens Ojibwe ricers. They fear that genetically modified rice could infect their manoomin - a gift to them from the Creator - and forever end its bounty.
Their fears are hardly irrational or misplaced.
Some field tests of genetically modified crops in the U.S. and Canada have resulted in miles-long "drift" of modified pollen, leading to fears that cross-pollination with non-modified crops is inevitable.
And a scathing report from the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month charged that the department failed to properly monitor experimental biotech crops.
According to an Associated Press report on the findings, the USDA didn't thoroughly evaluate biotech applications nor did it ensure that experimental crops were destroyed at the end of field tests. In some cases, the USDA didn't even know where the modified crops were planted.
"The system has been set up practically as a self-reporting system," Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the AP. "It's a 'don't look, don't find' policy."
Instead of plowing public money into research that almost certainly will harm or destroy a native resource, why not channel the money into programs that will help Ojibwe ricers become economically self-sufficient? Native wild rice processors could benefit from recapitalization and expansion of their medium-size facilities, LaDuke said. And ricers and processors could use help with marketing their superior product.
"Branding and marketing," LaDuke said. "What distinguishes us? Quality over quantity."
That brings us back to the labeling issue. LaDuke's cousin, St. Paul businessman Al Paulson, has been pushing for a federal wild rice labeling law for years.
"We have (Sens. Mark) Dayton and (Norm) Coleman on the Agriculture Committee," he said. "We're trying to get them to pass a law. Native wild rice is a name worth protecting, just like Champagne and Bordeaux."
To Indian people, manoomin is even more important than that. Wild rice was a gift to The People from the Creator, fulfillment of a prophesy that led the Anishinabe on their westward migration to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
As LaDuke says, "Don't mess it up."
Coulson is editorial page editor of the Pioneer Press, 345 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN 55101.
White Earth Land Recovery Project: www.savewildrice.org
Native Harvest: www.nativeharvest.com/index1.asp
Minnesota Public Radio wild rice project: news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2005/03/08_robertsont_wildrice/
2.Patents on taro hybrids protested
By Mark Niesse
Associated Press, January 14, 2006
The taro plant, used to make poi, is a sacred ancestor of the Hawaiian people that can't be owned, protesters said yesterday.
Activists and farmers urged the University of Hawai'i to give up three of its patents on varieties of taro genetically enhanced by crossbreeding. About 20 people rallied in a small field of taro growing on the university's Manoa campus.
"The taro is our ancestor. It's not a commodity," said longtime Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte. "The University of Hawai'i cannot own our ancestors. They're setting the precedent for the rest of the world to come here and start patenting things."
According to Hawaiian belief, the cosmic first couple gave birth to a stillborn, Haloa, from whose gnarled body sprang the broad-leafed plant whose bulb-like corms are ground into one of Hawai'i's best-known foods. The Hawaiian people, it is believed, came from a second brother, making the plant part of their common ancestry.
The three lines of taro patented by the University of Hawai'i share a lineage that dates to the Polynesian taro first brought to the Islands centuries ago, Ritte said. Since the fourth or fifth century, taro has been crossbred thousands of times by Hawaiian farmers to create new strains of the plant.
"The idea that one generation of people could claim ownership of something that's much older than we are is ridiculous," said David Strauch, a taro farmer who grows traditional varieties on O'ahu. "Taro is so central to Hawaiian culture."
A spokeswoman for the college where the scientists did their work on taro said their varieties of taro are distinct from those found naturally.
These three types of taro are more resistant to leaf blight and root rot, and they grow bigger than wild varieties, according to the 2002 patent applications.
"They took something that wasn't working 100 percent, and they basically came out with a new variety," said Ania Wieczorek, spokeswoman for the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. "This isn't just something found in the wild. They took something and made it much better."
Ritte claimed in a letter to the dean of the college that patents should not have been granted for these genetically enhanced plants. He wrote that the patents were given in 2002 based on preliminary observations that have not been confirmed by controlled experiments.
The patents require farmers who use these varieties to pay licensing fees to the university and to let officials onto their property to study the plants. Farmers may not sell the seeds.
It would be up to the scientists who own the patents to revoke them, Wieczorek said.
Ritte said that if they do not give up these taro patents, he plans to take legal action before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Ritte has gone to battle with the university before over the genetic modification of taro. As a result, the university agreed in May to stop experiments on Hawaiian varieties of taro because of cultural concerns that it was tampering with native species.
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