Tribes seek limit on wild rice bioengineering (20/4/2007)

Tribes seek limit on wild rice bioengineering
Timberjay Newspapers [USA], April 20 2007 Volume 18, Issue 16

Tribal officials as well as supporters of sustainable agriculture are turning to the Legislature in hopes of heading off genetic alterations to one of the Ojibwe culture's most sacred foods - manoomin, otherwise known as wild rice.

Tribal officials, like Bois Forte Tribal Chairman Kevin Leecy, say they can't afford to allow scientists to manipulate the wild rice genome, and they're hoping a Senate bill (SF 2103) introduced last month, will hold such research at bay, at least for now. The measure would require an environmental impact statement before any open-air tests of genetically-engineered wild rice could be conducted. It would also require the Department of Natural Resources to identify and assess threats to natural stands of wild rice in the state.

The bill was passed out of two Senate committees, including the Finance Committee, last week.

In testimony on the bill before the Senate Government Operations and Oversight Committee last week, Leecy noted the extraordinary steps the Bois Forte have taken to protect the wild rice crop on Nett Lake. "No motorized boats are allowed on Nett Lake, the dam is carefully monitored and we have invested in the most modern equipment to clear the lake's seven inlets and outlets and keep the waters alive," he said.

Leecy said the prospect of genetically-altered wild rice escaping test plots is the concern that is fueling opposition to the idea. "History has shown that it is hard to contain these things in test plots," said Leecy during an interview with the Timberjay late last week. "Supposed improvements of white rice led to contamination, which cost the white rice industry $100 million in the southern U.S."

Leecy, who was recently named chairman of the Indian Legislative Affairs Council, has been busy lobbying in recent weeks on several issues, but this one, in particular, has the attention of tribal officials. "We're taking a strong stand against it," Leecy said.

Tribal concerns about the threat appear legitimate. Dennis Olson, director of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, told senators in testimony last month that no technology exists "to segregate genetically engineered from non-genetically engineered crops." Opponents of genetically modifying wild rice say it could be even more difficult to control than many crops, because it is widely consumed or otherwise carried by migrating waterfowl, which could easily spread altered rice seeds to other lakes in the state. Pollen from those plants could quickly enter the genome of natural wild rice beds, with unknown consequences to the health of those stands and the wildlife that depends on wild rice.

Potential impact to wild rice economy

Such contamination could have a significant impact as well on efforts by the Bois Forte and other tribes to market their wild rice. With the increasing consumer preference for natural foods, Bois Forte officials are readying a major marketing push to introduce their Nett Lake rice to an upscale gourmet foods market. "We're emphasizing the premium quality," said Andy Datko, CEO of the Bois Forte Development Corporation, which is spearheading the effort. The band has developed a new website ( that will help educate consumers, using sound and video, on how real wild rice is harvested and processed, and why it is a superior product to farm-raised paddy rice. Datko said the re-branding of the product will be combined with new outlets for selling the rice. In addition to the website, the band will be selling the premium rice through the WELY radio station, the band-owned Y Store, and the Fortune Bay gift shop. "We also want to get it on cooking shows," said Datko, "to get it more exposure."

The upscale marketing push will also help support an increase in the price for Nett Lake rice. The website will sell premium rice at about $15 a pound, $10 a pound for broken rice. That's more than the product has typically sold for, but Datko said that's unlikely to be an issue for a goumet food.

But contamination from genetic modification could derail such marketing efforts, tribal officials fear, especially in some foreign markets, such as Europe, where concern about genetic engineering is more widespread than in the U.S.

Well-known White Earth activist Winona LaDuke, made that same point during Senate testimony favoring legislation to protect wild rice. She said genetic contamination would likely close off markets in countries like Germany, Italy, and Japan - countries which prohibit the importation of genetically-modified foods.

Political arguments in play

A few individuals have testified in recent weeks against the proposed wild rice protections. Beth Nelson, president of the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council suggested the legislation is premature, because it is currently too expensive to conduct genetic modification of wild rice. And Ron Phillips, a University of Minnesota agronomist, urged the Legislature against closing off a potential line of research for the university. Phillips, however, was speaking for himself, not the university.

Leecy said despite its usual concern for academic freedom, the University of Minnesota has taken a neutral stand on the wild rice protections. And at least one other U of M professor has testified in favor of the protections.


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